VC Scott denounces Minister for “political interference” in research funding

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott spoke out against “political interference” by acting Education Minister Stuart Robert, who vetoed a number of research grants peer-reviewed under the controversial “national interest” test.

On Christmas Eve, after months of delay, Robert signed nearly 600 Research grants recommended for funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) peer approval process.

However, Roberts used his ministerial veto to cancel six of the CRA approved grants. Literary studies were hit the hardest, while projects to understand China and student climate activism were also rejected for failing to “demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money or contribute interest. national ”.

In strongly worded comments to Right hereUSyd Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott said: “This action must be seen as political interference and unacceptable to a process which must be based on peer review to ensure academic integrity, not a political whim. “

“We are deeply concerned by the actions taken by the Acting Minister of Education and dismayed by our researchers who submitted in good faith grant applications that were recommended for funding through a rigorous peer review process. to be canceled at the final stage. ”

Significantly, Scott also called for a change in the law: “We are working with the industry to better understand the reasons for the decision and to demand legislation to ensure that the CRA can operate free from political interference. the future. “

While a ministerial veto on research funding has existed since 2001, Robert’s intervention marks the first time that the “national interest” test, introduced in 2018, has been invoked to cancel funding.

Vice-chancellors, management and unions united against the precedent set by the ministerial veto, while former PM Kevin Rudd predictably weighed in, outlining the dependence on the government. from “national interest” to “neo-McCarthyism”.

The politically motivated veto has drawn unflattering comparisons with the autocratic tendency to control and censor academic research. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, former president of the European Research Council, compared the use of the “national interest” test to Hungarian efforts to overturn academic independence, while noting that such interference “affects very negatively [Australia’s] international image.

Write in Times Higher Education, USyd Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Duncan Ivison said that “the biggest risk facing universities … is that research funding becomes hopelessly politicized, as it is now. in Australia”.

“This strikes at the heart of the essential role that publicly funded research plays in a democracy. Moreover, it is bad policy.

A petition of nearly 1,500 signatures calls for the reinstatement of the research projects to which the veto has been opposed, while the Australian Association for Political Studies urged the government to “publicly commit to supporting tough and expert funding decisions.”

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