VC Scott slams minister over research funding ‘political interference’

Six projects, including one on student climate activism, were vetoed by the Education Minister for failing to be in the ‘national interest’.

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott has come out swinging against acting Education Minister Stuart Robert’s “political interference” in vetoing a number of peer-approved research grants under the controversial ‘national interest’ test.

On Christmas Eve, after months of delays, Robert signed off on almost 600 research grants recommended for funding through the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) peer-approval process. 

However, Roberts exercised his ministerial veto to quash six of the ARC-approved grants. Worst affected were literary studies, while projects aimed at understanding China and student climate activism were also rejected for failing to “demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest.”

In strongly-worded comments to Honi, USyd Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott said: “This action must be considered political interference and unacceptable for a process that must rely on peer review to ensure academic integrity, and not political whim.”

“We are deeply concerned by the action taken by the acting minister for education, and dismayed for our researchers who submitted grant applications in good faith that were recommended for funding through a rigorous peer review process only to be cancelled at the final stage.” 

Significantly, Scott also called for a change in the law: “We are….working with the sector to better understand the reasons behind the decision, and to call for legislation to ensure the ARC can operate free from any such political interference in future.”

While a ministerial veto over research funding has existed since 2001, Robert’s intervention is the first time the ‘national interest’ test, introduced in 2018, has been relied upon to cancel funding. 

Vice-chancellors, management, and unions have united against the precedent set by the ministerial veto, while former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd predictably weighed in, describing the reliance on ‘national interest’ as “neo-McCarthyism.”

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

Writing in Times Higher Education, USyd Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Duncan Ivison said that “the greatest risk facing universities…is that research funding becomes hopelessly politicised, as is now happening in Australia.”

“That strikes at the heart of the critical role that publicly funded research plays in a democracy. Moreover, it’s bad policy.”

A petition with almost 1500 signatures is calling for the reinstatement of the vetoed research projects, while the Australian Political Studies Association urged the government to “publicly commit to supporting rigorous, expert funding decisions.”