Jamal Khashoggi
Former Education Minister, current Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.

In an early scene of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennett remarks to her suitor Fitzwilliam Darcy:

It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.

Bennett is probing Darcy to see if his reputation for being overproud is merited.

There was plenty of pride from the former Education Minister Simon Birmingham last week as he doubled downed on his decision to veto the award of eleven research grants recommended to him by the Australian Research Council in 2017 and 2018.

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“I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar”, Birmingham tweeted, after the veto was revealed in senate estimates.

On the basis of being “pretty sure”, Birmingham personally struck down $4.2 million of grants that had been vetted through the ARC’s months long peer review processes. All eleven awards were in humanities and creative arts disciplines.

“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”, we, after Elizabeth Bennett, might ask?

It’s a question that seems not to have occurred to Birmingham. But then he has spoken of his “horror” and boredom when assigned Pride and Prejudice in high school. “It turned me off English,” he told Fairfax. He chose to study for an MBA.

That all blackballed grants were in the arts and humanities leaves little room for doubting Birmingham’s prejudices. The revelation has displayed the absurdity of a process that allows the minister to veto grants at the last gasp without even needing either to announce or justify the decision.

Condemnation from universities and learned associations has been immediate and universal. Organisations issuing statements include the sector’s peak body Universities Australia, the Group of Eight research intensive universities, the Innovative Research Universities, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Historical Association, Australian Heads of University English, the University of Melbourne, UNSW the Association of Australian Medical Institutes, and the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. The National Alliance for Public Universities has called for the minister to be removed from cabinet and demanded that the funding of the vetoed projects be reinstated.

Applicants who had their grants struck down have asked a number of crucial questions. Did the minister read the rejected applications in full? Why were the vetoes not publicly announced? Why were the blackballed applicants given the same default message of rejection as those who the ARC did not recommend to the minister? It emerged yesterday that the ARC conveyed to La Trobe that the proposal of one of their vetoed staff was lowly ranked. Did the ARC participate in covering this up?

Clarifications around the process that led to this outcome are important. The public needs to be aware, though, that it is more than clear already that fundamental principles of academic independence and integrity have been breached.

Not just culture wars

If it is tempting to file this under “culture wars”; another strike against “lefty” “postmodern” academic culture, as was apparently the case with Brendan Nelson’s veto of ARC grants back in 2005, it is notable that the grants Birmingham targeted were for subjects as neutral sounding as “Legal Secularism” and “The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music”. (Equally, Birmingham signed off on projects titled “The Oulipo Group and literary invention” and “Representation of gender and sexual diversity in Australian film and television”.)

Behind this lies something even darker than ideological interference. The arbitrary nature of Birmingham’s decisions reveals this to be an attack on the civic space of public research itself. It fits a pattern of disregard for the independence of our public institutions.

On the one side the coalition government has been intent on eroding the revenue base for public institutions like universities through tax cuts to corporations and high income owners. On the other, it has assumed the right to demand ideological fidelity from those institutions. We’ve seen it in the attempts to intervene in the ABC. We’ve seen it in the way government figures have worked to ram the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation down the throats of public universities. We’ve seen it in the way the government seeks to clamp down on campus protest under the guise of promoting “freedom of speech”. And now we’ve seen a minister unapologetically censoring research on the basis that he’s “pretty sure” he knows what the public writ large think ought to be funded.

That Birmingham, a test-tube career politician, should have fallen in with the Coalition’s anti-democratic reflex, shows how things have deteriorated.

How the system is supposed to work

Australians trust universities not because they readily understand the rationale for each of the tens of thousands of research projects being undertaken in Australia’s public universities. It is because they know that robust processes are in place to ensure the quality and rigour of research.

The ARC was formed when the Colleges of Advanced Education were converted en masse into universities by the Hawke Labor Government to create the “unified national system”. The ARC was charged with coordinating and overseeing the distribution of research funds that had previously been allocated directly to universities and was to give “coordinated independent advice to the minister” about which research projects to fund. In removing decisions about research from universities, the ARC created a national competitive system, centralised decisions about research and gave the federal minister the ultimate say over which projects go ahead.

Most academics perceive the minister’s role to be akin to the governor-general. She or he has ultimate power but it would be folly to exercise it, for it undermines the entire process of specialist peer review (on which, more in a moment) that ensures the system’s integrity. Birmingham has become our John Kerr, and the apparent flippancy with which he has been able to exercise his power means that we need to look again at the underlying the legislative settings.

How we can better protect academic freedom?

In the United Kingdom the mechanism for ensuring that the state’s provision of funds for research is kept entirely separate from decisions about how those funds are spent is known as the “Haldane principle”. There’s some dispute about the principle’s origins and how it has been enforced. But it’s not hard to get your head around. At its heart, the system relies on processes commonly called “peer review” (procedures which themselves are the focus of continual critical scrutiny). When specialists review and contest each others work, and where these processes themselves are transparent, it ensures the integrity and innovation of the research. There have been moves recently in the UK to shore up this principle through legislation.

Labor’s Kim Carr has spoken of a “protocol”, according to which ministers ought publicly to justify their vetos. This is too weak. We now need to enshrine the equivalent of the Haldane principle in Australian law. The minister’s right of veto needs to be removed and the sovereignty of academics over their own research priorities reinforced. 

And, for his pride and prejudices, Simon Birmingham has to go.

Ben Etherington is a senior lecturer and member of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. He is currently serving as the elected academic representative on WSU’s Board of Trustees.