(Image: Private Media)

Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert faces mounting anger from academics, university leaders and the opposition after he quietly vetoed six Australian Research Council grants on Christmas Eve.

An open letter addressed to Robert and Council CEO Sue Thomas, signed by 138 members of the ARC’s college of experts, senior researchers across a range of disciplines who play a key role in assessing prospective grants, slammed the minister’s decision to block the projects on “national interest” grounds.

“Such interventions compromise the integrity of the research funding system, weaken public trust in the ARC, and threaten to damage Australia’s international reputation,” they wrote.

“At least two members of the college have already resigned in protest, and the incident has already attracted international concern.”

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It follows an additional letter signed by more than 60 professors sent to the minister last week, and outcry from Nobel laureates JM Coetzee and Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.

No reasons needed

Robert, who took on the education portfolio after Alan Tudge was stood down pending an investigation into allegations of an abusive relationship made against him by a former staffer, has broad power to veto any research project on national interest grounds, without providing further reasons.

But before projects reach the minister’s desk, they are subject to thorough, multi-level scrutiny by appointed subject matter experts. They’re then voted on by the college of experts, and assessed according to criteria including feasibility, innovation and value.

“It’s a very thorough process of peer review-based on explicit criteria that the applicant knows,” Deakin University’s associate dean of research Andrea Witcomb, who is a member of the ARC’s college of experts, told Crikey. 

The minister then assesses “the extent to which the research contributes to Australia’s national interest through its potential to have economic, commercial, environmental, social or cultural benefits to the Australian community.”

Of the six grants Robert vetoed, two focused on study of modern China, two on early English literature, one on science-fiction novels, and a final grant on the motivations of school students involved in climate action. 

“If it were truly national interest, you’d have to argue that understanding politics in modern China had absolutely no benefit to Australia,” Witcomb said.

“I find that rather hard to believe. You’d think in the present political environment, the more we know about China, the better.”

A pattern of interference

Robert’s blocking of the grants isn’t the first time a Liberal education minister has used such discretion. In 2005, at the height of the Howard-era history wars, Brendan Nelson blocked a series of grants.

In 2018, then education minister Simon Birmingham vetoed 11 grants in the humanities, covering topics like “post-Orientalist art in the strait of Gibraltar” and changing Chinese gender norms. 

That year, Birmingham’s successor, Dan Tehan, introduced the national interest test into the minister’s approval for ARC grants.

Facing anger from Labor’s Kim Carr after Birmingham’s vetoes, the government also introduced a requirement that a minister must reveal when they blocked a grant. A further tightening to the ARC grants processes was announced in December, when Robert unveiled a plan to tie funding to the government’s research commercialisation agenda.

“We’ve not only got no accountability about what national interest might be, we’ve also got a narrowing of what that national interest might be in the future by making it more utilitarian,” Witcomb said.

The ARC college of experts wants funding to abide by the Haldan Principles, where research decisions are made by independent peer reviewers at arm’s length from government interference.

Meanwhile, Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek promised to approve all grants recommended by the ARC’s peer review process if she becomes minister later this year. In a letter sent to concerned academics and seen by Crikey, Plibersek hit out at the “hypocrisy” of the government’s approach to academic research. 

“This government has a record of decrying ‘cancel culture’ while at the same time censoring academic research it doesn’t like,” she said.

“A few years ago, the Liberal Party commissioned a review into universities because it said it was worried about freedom of speech on campus. Yet now it’s vetoing research it doesn’t agree with. This hypocrisy is breathtaking.”