Christmas comes a little early each year to some members of the academic world, when every November the Australian Research Council posts their list of successful grant applicants on the web. But for the second year in a row, there are reports that Education Minister Brendan Nelson has checked his list twice and personally vetoed some ARC grants in the social sciences and humanities.

Last week, Professor Stuart Macintyre, Dean of Arts at the University of Melbourne, wrote in the Smage that “these researchers are victims of a form of political interference in the system of national competitive grants that is unique to this country.” Macintyre, who has chaired the humanities ARC panel in the past, explained that only one applicant in four succeeds, and the ARC uses expert panels and assessors to ensure that it “chooses the very best.”

Macintyre linked Nelson’s unprecedented interference back to a column written by Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt in 2003 which called for reforms to the ARC, accusing it of spending “millions so academics can pursue self-indulgent theories and neo-Marxist fancies, much of it hostile to our culture, history and institutions.”

Academics argue that they have no way of knowing if Nelson has vetoed their application or if it was rejected by the three “lay members” he appointed to the ARC’s quality and scrutiny committee; Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness, newsreader Ross Symonds and former High Court judge Daryl Dawson.

Mark McKenna, an ANU historian whose grant application for a biography on Manning Clark was rejected this year told Crikey, “This is a blatant case of political interference. The whole process has been compromised… the ARC has become a battleground for the cultural wars.”

“My work is clearly a sensitive topic… It’s hard to imagine these people funding a biography of Manning Clarke… But I don’t know whether I was vetted by them, which is an important point to make. Before this interference started to take place you didn’t know the details of the decision-making process… But now there’s another layer on top of the process where people are appointed at the whim of the minister with no expertise.”

Judith Brett of the School of Social Sciences at LaTrobe University, who received a grant this year, told Crikey that she is considering no longer acting as a voluntary assessor for the ARC as a way of registering her protest over Nelson’s reforms. The ARC “rely on a huge amount of voluntary labour… There are hundreds of academics whose labour they rely on and who do it in good faith.”

“This is one of the most overtly politicised ways of funding research that one can imagine,” Professor Robert Manne of LaTrobe University told Crikey, “It’s sort of incredible that the Minister uses a veto power when there’s no reason to think he has that kind of expertise…”

But Dr Mandy Thomas,Executive Director for the Humanities and Creative Arts at the ARC and head of the Discovery Projects, told Crikey the “feedback process in the Discovery Projects is the same as last year,which in fact was an enhancement on previous years andwe don’t release the names of unsuccessful applicants.”

Crikey also contacted Brendan Nelson and Andrew Bolt, but they didn’t get back to us. Paddy McGuinness wouldn’t comment, saying he was “bound by a confidentiality agreement.”