The Royal Australian Chemical Institute condemns political interference in Australia’s premier research grant scheme

By Jenny Pham posted 25-01-2024 18:05


Published 24 January 2022

On Christmas eve 2021, after a considerable and unexplained delay, the results of the latest round of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Projects research grant scheme were finally made public. The Discovery Projects are un-arguably Australia’s premier means to achieve world-class fundamental research across all areas of basic knowledge from Humanities through to Science and Engineering. Many applications merit funding, but only a select fraction are judged, through an unbiased, rigorous and independent peer review process, to be the very best and are awarded support.

Despite passing several stages of expert assessment, some of the successful grants were rejected by the acting Minister for Education and Youth, the Honourable Stuart Rowland Robert.

The Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) joins other scientific organisations, current and past ARC Laureate Fellows, as well as the ARC’s own panel of assessors, the College of Experts, in voicing concerns over the political intervention by the acting Minister to veto grants on the grounds that they “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”. In fact, each successful Discovery Project grant has passed intense scrutiny on the appropriateness of its budget and must clearly outline how the project will contribute to the government-defined national priorities.

It is entirely appropriate for the Minister to have final oversight of how taxpayer money is committed. The RACI supports the view that the more scrutiny involved in decisions on government spending, the lower the risk that scarce public money is inappropriately allocated. However, for more than a century in liberal democracies, best practise in research funding allocation has been guided by the principle that whilst governments need to establish funding guidelines and create an independent process, decisions on individual proposals are best made through unbiased peer review. Government ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded as they cannot possess the level of specialised expertise needed and may act on a political agenda rather than make selections based on excellence.

Australian research grant agencies and organisations such as the ARC have developed multi-staged, rigorous and unbiased grant allocation systems based on well-established governmental priorities and objectively guided peer review processes. Interventions from politicians go counter to the objectives of these grant agencies and do not provide value for the Australian taxpayer, as they defeat the efforts of the expensive government systems created to achieve the best outcomes.

The RACI supports the ARC College of Experts in their call to:

  1. legislate amendments to the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to ensure the independence of the ARC and to prevent political interference in research grants; and
  2. maintain the rigour and integrity of the ARC's grant assessment process by:
    • ending the Minister's use of the National Interest Test to make unilateral politically-based decisions on individual projects outside of the peer review process, and;
    • continuing to require research excellence in all members admitted to the ARC College of Experts

View Full Statement Here