My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 6 November 2018

by ray goodlass

Minister’s blocking of university research grants smacks of totalitarianism

Recently we learnt that the previous federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham personally blocked $1.4m grants for humanities research. This quite rightly provoked a strong reaction from universities, individual academics, and the Liberal Party’s political opponents.

Australian Greens Education Spokesperson, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, has called Senator Simon Birmingham’s personal intervention “outrageous”. She also called for a completely independent process, free from Ministerial interference.

Senator Faruqi said: “As a former academic, I am horrified that the Minister intervened to block research grants. This is a massive and outrageous overreach from the Government” she concluded.

As I am also a former academic I share Senator Faruqi’s outrage, though I hope I would be equally appalled if I had not been an academic.

And as a proud member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) I also share its condemnation of Birmingham’s action.

“NTEU members and other researchers expect the Minister to uphold the principles of academic freedom and to not directly interfere in the allocation of research grants,” said NTEU President Dr Alison Barnes.

“There was no transparency around these decisions. Applicants were not notified that their grants successfully navigated and found their way to the top of the extremely tough ARC vetting process only to be rejected by the Minister.”

“We can only speculate on what the reasons were. Was Senator Birmingham’s decision based on perceptions of how his colleagues or conservative commentators might react to these announcements? If this is the case, secretive political interference in the allocation of competitive research grants is totally unacceptable” she concluded.

Research grants are not there for the Minister to pick and choose based on his own political prejudices. The Australian Research Council should be trusted to guide research funding, free from political interference.

Academic research is too valuable to be hijacked by a narrow ideological agenda.

Labor accused Simon Birmingham of pandering to “knuckle-dragging right-wing philistines” by blocking 11 Australian Research Council grants in the humanities totalling $4m.

According to evidence given by Australian Research Council (ARC) officials, Birmingham rejected six Discovery grants worth a total of $1.4m, three Early Career grants ($1.1m) and two Future Fellowships ($1.7m).  The rejected projects are all based in the humanities and social sciences.

The grant projects were proposed by researchers at universities including the Australian Catholic University, the Australian National University as well as Sydney, Melbourne, New South Wales and Monash universities. All grants were independently approved by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

As the grants had been approved by the ARC they had been accepted as being worthy research topics and so should not be able to be blocked by the Minister.

Labor’s innovation spokesman, Kim Carr, accused Birmingham of judging research on its title and targeting the humanities because no research in other disciplines such as science were blocked.

Carr also picked up the ideological justification for blocking the grants. “He’s pandering to right-wing extremism in an attempt to peddle ignorance,” he told Guardian Australia. “There is no case for this blatant political interference to appease the most reactionary elements of the Liberal and National party and the shock-jocks.

“These are grants in arts, culture, music and history which somehow or other in his mind are not acceptable … what is his research expertise to justify interventions of that type?” he noted.

When the former education minister Brendan Nelson vetoed humanities grants in 2004-05 there was “outcry from the Australian research community”.

When in government Labor instituted a protocol that blocking research required a special declaration so the decision was public, which the Lib/Nat Coalition government had rescinded.

In a statement the Australian Academy of the Humanities expressed “shock and anger” that the minister intervened and called for the funding to be restored.

And to add insult to injury last week the Morrison government said academics who want to apply for research council funding will now have to explain how their proposed projects will “advance the national interest.”

The education minister, Dan Tehan, says a “national interest test” will be introduced to the application process for Australian Research Council grants, applying to all future grant rounds.

This is beginning to look like Nazi Germany, or at least fascism.