Education Minister Dan Tehan did not use his powers of veto and approved all grants recommended by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in the latest round of funding.
The ARC has told Computerworld that “the Minister approved all grants recommended by the ARC CEO” in the latest funding round, announced on Tuesday.
In October, Tehan said the application process was in need of strengthening in order to “improve the public’s confidence in taxpayer funded university research” adding that “academic freedom and free speech do not require grant funding to exist”.
Tehan later proposed a National Interest Test – which is being applied to future applications for funding – requiring applicants to “articulate clearly to the responsible minister how their research will benefit the nation”.
The ARC confirmed to Computerworld that the minister had in the latest round approved three projects that were previously rejected, having been vetoed by Tehan’s predecessor Simon Birmingham.
In determining which research projects receive government backing, ARC assessors recommends research projects to the ARC CEO who then provides advice to the minister who makes the final decision.
During his time as Minister for Education and Training, Birmingham vetoed 11 grants.
The three previously rejected projects now approved are: Masculinity and social change in Australia, by researchers at the Australian Catholic University (ACU); Rioting and the literary archive from University of New South Wales (UNSW); and Art of cultural diplomacy from Australian National University (ANU).
According to Labor, the projects’ have been approved following “minor changes to titles”. The ACU project was previously titled A History of Men’s Dress; the ANU project had been titled Louis XIV Prints, Medals and Materials in the Global Exchange; while the UNSW project title is unchanged.
Regarding the new test, shadow minister for innovation, industry, science and research Senator Kim Carr said: “These petty culture war games must stop”.
To date, the ARC has received 4648 applications for funding commencing in 2019 of which 920 have been awarded.
The announcement of successful projects – in the Discovery Projects; Discovery Early Career Researcher Award; Discovery Indigenous; and Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities categories – was made on Tuesday, far later in the year than usual and the latest since 1998.
An analysis of ARC annual reports going back to 1999 by University of Melbourne postdoctoral research fellow Daniel Creedon found the latest previous announcement date had been November 17, in 2004.
The later-than-usual announcement was deemed “unacceptable” by STEM sector peak body Science & Technology Australia, who claimed it posed a “significant risk to the national interest”.
Scientist organisation Australian Academy of Science joined the call to “end the uncertainty” saying “Australian researchers deserve better than this”.
The groups have since welcomed the announcement, saying it came as a “relief”.
Among the successful projects are a “world-class machine learning facility for Australia” headed by the University of Adelaide; research to design and make processors which are “secure, reliable and energy efficient for deployment in Internet of Things systems, which require little on-going maintenance” from UNSW; work to design battery compartments for electric vehicles with high “crashworthiness” from the University of Sydney; and a project to investigate “software-defined provisioning of Internet of Things applications in fog computing systems” also from USyd.
Look them in the eye
The new National Interest Test has been roundly criticised by scientists, universities and research bodies, given successful applicants already pass a “national benefit” test.
Tehan this week explained the new National Interest Test would be a “compulsory field for the applicant to make their case” requiring a statement of “100 to 150 words and in plain English”.
"Introducing a National Interest Test will give the Minister of the day the confidence to look the Australian voter in the eye and say, ‘your money is being spent wisely’," Tehan said in a statement.
Of the latest round of applications, Tehan added that "some of these projects would have been improved by the application of a National Interest Test because using plain English to explain the value of research to the country helps sharpen the focus and remind people they are working on behalf of every Australian”.
Carr said details of the test had not “allayed concerns”.
“Under the Tehan test researchers are no longer subject only to the scrutiny and judgement of their peers but also to that of politicians,” he said in a statement.
“The independence and integrity of the ARC's existing assessment procedures are maintained if politicians are kept at arm's length from the process. How that can continue to be so when a concept as politically loaded as the NIT is inserted into the assessment criteria?” Carr added.