Independent selection of grants essential for integrity of research system

Monday, 29 October, 2018

Independent selection of grants essential for integrity of research system

Industry has expressed concerns about the Ministerial veto on 11 grant applications recommended for funding by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Grants for research must be allocated according to the scientific merit of the proposal as judged by peer review. Political review is inappropriate, as it gives the appearance of political interference in the internationally accepted practice of peer review in science, said Professor John Shine, President, Australian Academy of Science.

“Appropriately, governments align funding schemes with national priorities and strategic objectives, and they are able to indicate such criteria when calling for proposals. However, within those criteria, scientific merit, as identified by independent peer review, should remain the central basis for allocating research support.

“In exchange for responsible and socially conscious conduct in research, academic researchers should be free to pursue lines of enquiry they consider meaningful and important. Indeed researchers are trained to identify problems or gaps in the academic literature and determine the best and most rigorous way to investigate that problem.

“Much of the value provided by research to policymakers and the public is due to its unbiased and independent nature and this should not be eroded,” said Prof Shine.

The Group of Eight (Go8), which represents Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, also condemned the interference. Go8 Chief Executive Vicki Thomson said, “This is a government that demands freedom of speech on campus but at the same time walks all over academic freedom; a government that, without transparency or explanation, secretly vetoes some $4 million in research projects that have undergone a rigorous peer review process and have been judged worthy for recommendation to the Minister by the ARC.

“When political views, political dislikes, begin to infringe on research projects that have already been accepted by this nation’s highly respected Australian Research Council it has to be said that we are on a slippery undemocratic slope,” she said.

“This is clearly base politics. It is unworthy of any government. Government should be above being so tricky for its own political agenda,” said Thomson. “Grants programs have rigorous peer review processes. These grants are not handed out like candy. They are hard fought for and hard won, and to suggest that the ARC is making the wrong decisions on which grants it chooses as worthy of funding, as this Ministerial action does, is uncalled for.

Thomson said the Go8 looked forward to the new Minister of Education, Dan Tehan, restoring integrity to Ministerial process and ensuring the grants are now provided as set out by the ARC.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Professor Nicholas Fisk said the disclosure of Senator Birmingham’s decision had left him questioning the purpose of the competitive grant process.

“It is distressing for researchers — and the academic community at large — to learn that research proposals selected on the basis of excellence were shunned for no apparent reason,” Professor Fisk said. “I am perplexed by the Minister’s decision, and this will blindside humanities researchers preparing grants in the current round.

“The researchers whose grants were rejected are at the top of their game. The competitive grant process ensures only the very best proposals are selected, yet the system allows the Minister to reject ARC’s recommendations without explanation or the opportunity for recourse. That needs to change.”

Image credit: © Yemelyanov

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