The Australian Catholic University has joined peak university bodies expressing dismay at the former education minister Simon Birmingham’s “political interference” in blocking $4m of grants.
On Thursday Senate estimates revealed that Birmingham had blocked 11 grants in the humanities approved by the Australian Research Council.
Birmingham and the new education minister, Dan Tehan, have defended the decision in the face of outrage from Universities Australia, the Group of Eight and others, who have warned the decision harms Australia’s reputation for research independence.
Blocked grants came from a wide range of universities, including seven from Group of Eight universities and a $326,000 grant to a researcher from the ACU for a history of men’s dress from 1870 to 1970. The topics included “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms” and “post orientalist arts in the Strait of Gibraltar”.
The Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor, Greg Craven, expressed concern that the 11 grants had been; overturned for “no apparent reason”.
I am deeply dismayed that the former minister for education would; veto these expert recommendations by the ARC,” Craven said.
“His political interference undermines the peer-review system, which is; designed to ensure academic integrity. The secretive nature of the interference is particularly troubling.
“The targeting of the humanities is disgraceful and damages Australia’s reputation for robust and competitive international research.”
The Group of Eight’s chief executive, Vicki Thomson, said Birmingham’s decision to block the grants “without transparency or explanation” was “reprehensible”.
“This is a government that demands freedom of speech on campus but at the same time walks all over academic freedom,” she said.
Thomson said that “at the very least, there should be a requirement for the minister to be; upfront and include in their grant announcement why they have rejected ARC-recommended grants”.
When political views, political dislikes, begin to infringe on research projects that have already been accepted by this nation’s highly respected [ARC] 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.”
The Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said funding of research must be; free of political interference which “undermines the integrity” of the funding system.
“You don’t expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia’s Olympic team,” she said. “In the same way, we rely on subject experts to judge the best research in their field, not politicians.”
On Monday Labor’s innovation and industry spokesman, Kim Carr, wrote to Tehan arguing that “arbitrary interventions of this kind contravene academic freedom, damaging the global standing of Australia’s researchers and the institutions in which they work”.
Carr called on Tehan to commit to the protocol Labor established in 2007 that the minister not overturn ARC decisions “without a full, timely and public explanation”.
Tehan responded: “Labor believes the government should just sign blank cheques because they don’t care about spending other people’s money.
“We believe a good government respects hard-working taxpayers; by doing due diligence about how their money is; spent.”
Birmingham, now the trade minister, said more than 99.7% of recommended grants had been; approved and the proposed funding had been; recommitted to other projects.
“I am confident that in each and every case rejected the vast majority of Australian taxpayers; would believe the millions of dollars involved were; better redirected to other research projects,” he said.
“I make no apologies for ensuring that taxpayer research dollars weren’t spent on projects that Australians would rightly view as being; entirely the wrong priorities.”
Other grants rejected included: rioting and the literary archive, legal secularism in Australia; Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, and writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity.