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Australian scientists vent frustrations ahead of national election

13 May 2022

Researchers are angry at what they see as increasing political interference in academia after government vetoes of several research projects.

Australian Parliament building.
The two chambers of Australia’s parliament meet at Parliament House in Canberra. Credit: John/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

On Christmas Eve 2021, Australia’s acting minister of education, Stuart Robert, used his veto power to block the Australian Research Council (ARC) from funding six proposals that were expected to be approved following a thorough review process.

The move has stirred a lurking feeling among some within the research community that the current government doesn’t care about academia. And although all the kiboshed projects fell within the humanities—one was a proposed investigation into right-wing extremism, for example—scientists down under are worried that they’ll be next. In January the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) issued a statement condemning the government’s vetoes, arguing that “political interference in the selection of research grants is eroding Australia’s international reputation and the integrity of Australia’s research system.”

The vetoes followed an announcement earlier in December that the government will seek to reform the ARC so its research programs are better aligned with Australia’s “national priorities,” which include mining, clean energy, medical products, and defense. Some scientists in Australia worry that such a move would leave many disciplines underfunded.

Aidan Sims, a pure mathematician at the University of Wollongong, had been a member of the ARC’s College of Experts since 2019 but resigned in response to the vetoes. “There’s a bigger picture to all this. Universities have felt abandoned by the government in recent years,” he says. “The vetoes were the last straw.” Research funding as a share of gross domestic product has been falling in Australia for the past decade, according to government statistics. Meanwhile, close to 10% of university jobs were cut during the pandemic to make up for the loss of income from a declining international student population.

Amid the rift between academics and the government, Australia is preparing for a general election on 21 May. The conservative incumbent prime minister, Scott Morrison, has an uphill battle, if opinion polls are to be believed, but analysts say Labor, the left-wing opposition party, has yet to make serious gains in the campaign. Ahead of the election, the AAS has warned that Australian science could emerge from the pandemic weaker than when it began.

Decisions “made on whims and fancies”

Researchers were especially surprised by the vetoes because they came at the end of what they say is a rigorous grant approval process.

Much like NSF in the US, the ARC is the Australian government’s flagship nonmedical research funding agency. It has an annual budget of more than AUD$900 million ($635 million). Grant applications are initially assessed against basic eligibility criteria. Then they move on to a more comprehensive evaluation during which expert academics weigh in and applicants respond to any concerns. The proposed projects are then ranked, and those with high rankings are assigned a recommended budget. Researchers must also make the case that their projects are in Australia’s national interest. Finally, the ARC presents its recommendations to the education minister.

When grants aren’t approved by the government, “the research community will ask why they bother when the decisions are made on whims and fancies,” says Chennupati Jagadish, a physicist at the Australian National University who will become the AAS president later this month. “If we want confidence in the system, we shouldn’t have political interference.”

And Sims notes that there is personal fallout as well. “It’s soul-crushing for the people involved,” he says. “It can be career-ending.”

Government research funding, by % of GDP.
After consistently spending an average of about 0.6% of GDP annually on R&D, the Australian government has cut back in the past decade. Source: Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, 2019–20 Science, Research and Innovation Budget Tables; graph created with Flourish

Andrew Francis, deputy dean of the School of Computer, Data, and Mathematical Sciences at Western Sydney University, thinks politicians are more comfortable with the subject matter of the humanities than with that of science and therefore are more likely to tinker with the former. “Too many of us falsely think we understand the humanities and can therefore make a judgment,” he says.

Sharath Sriram agrees. “I’ve found STEM to be safer from the veto because politicians don’t understand those proposals as much,” says the nanoscientist and policy chair for Science & Technology Australia, an organization that facilitates connections among scientists, governments, and industry.

Unease over “national priorities”

Yet scientists worry that this exception will not last. In a written statement published just before the vetoes, the government detailed its desire to reform the ARC, saying it wants to pay particular attention to research that can readily be commercialized. The government pledged to instruct the ARC to focus on the country’s manufacturing priorities, and Stuart Robert has said that industry representatives should be more active in the ARC’s grant-giving process. Those changes would be on the agenda should Morrison’s coalition of conservative parties be reelected this month.

Talk of “manufacturing priorities” is a front, says Sims. “I think it’s part of an effort to shift ARC funding away from basic research in physics and maths toward stuff with an immediate application.”

Francis, who also resigned from the ARC’s College of Experts to protest the vetoes, notes that his own interdisciplinary research on phylogenetics falls into the realm of basic science. “You don’t know what the applications might or might not be when you set out,” he says.

Sriram, however, believes Francis and Sims may have misunderstood the government’s position. The answer to a lot of the research world’s problems is to increase funding, he says, and one way to do that is with commercial involvement. “The government isn’t an infinite pot. We need to make industry invest in research,” he says. “When the government is trying to make research more aligned with Australia’s industry and manufacturing priorities, it’s another way of saying they want industry to invest more in research.”

Sims and Francis are calling for an end to what they see as governmental meddling. They’d like Australia to embrace the British Haldane principle, which sees ministers set the rules by which government organizations fund science but removes politicians from the decisions of which individual projects receive support. “That’s how a lot of other democracies around the world work,” says Sims.

Australia’s Green Party submitted a bill to the Senate in March to do just that, and the move was largely welcomed by academics. “It’s something we’d love to see in Australia,” says Francis. But the move wasn’t supported by Morrison’s conservative coalition or by Labor, amid concerns it would weaken parliamentary oversight of the process. Francis was disappointed by Labor. “I thought it would have been a good opportunity to show principles,” he says. “They clearly don’t want to change anything.” Labor has promised not to use the veto if it wins the forthcoming election.

Whichever party ends up winning, it will need to find ways to improve relations with the country’s science community if Australian science is to prosper, says Sriram. “My role, bluntly, is to put aside partisan views and convince people, whatever their party, that science is valuable, and that’s what I’ll be doing after the election.”

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