Speech: Australian Research Council funding schemes


I rise to take note of document 10 on page 4 relating to the Australian Research Council funding schemes. Senators will know that I have a strong interest in the work of the ARC. The importance of research and the ARC cannot be understated. It was a travesty how university research and researchers were treated by the previous government, in particular how ministers made something of a sport of vetoing recommended grants based on a whim or a political ideology and then tried to make a mockery of some of the proposals they shut down after they had been approved through the rigorous peer review process.

Shamefully, in December last year, the then acting education minister delivered a letter of expectations to the then CEO of the ARC, telling the ARC to direct more funding towards national manufacturing priorities at the expense of other research and demanding greater prioritisation of the national interest test in determining funding recommendations. The letter was widely condemned by academic institutions as unjustified interference. The CEO resigned less than a week later. The new Labor education minister has announced that there will be an independent review of the ARC as recommended by the Senate committee inquiry into my bill to remove ministerial discretion from research grants administered by the ARC. This is welcome. The new minister also said that there should be an end to delays and political interference in the research grant process. That, too, is welcome. However, the minister also said that the national interest test should continue. There is no compelling reason for the continuation of the national interest test. It is onerous, it is unnecessary and it is causing havoc for researchers.

A practice known to the academics as NIT-picking has delayed and interfered with the research funding process in recent research months. This document produced in response to my OPD earlier this month shows the concerning extent of the ARC CEO's interference and just how broken and unnecessary the NIT is. The ARC CEO requested revisions to the NIT statement in 322 applications, 13 per cent of all projects that reached the CEO. Multiple revisions were requested in almost two-thirds of these cases. Disturbingly, applications to the Discovery Indigenous 2023 scheme attracted a request for NIT revisions nearly three times the average rate of NIT-picking for applications that had progressed to the CEO. NIT-picking has disproportionately interfered with the applications of Indigenous researchers. The CEO needs to explain why Indigenous research applications were subjected to more revisions than others.

In December 2018 the Senate passed my motion which called to scrap the national interest test, as it would allow the government of the day to influence an independent research approval process. It acknowledged that the ARC already has a rigorous peer review process for assessing grant applications, and applications are required to demonstrate the benefits and impact of their research, and it called on the government to get rid of the national interest test. Labor supported the motion. Senator Carr referred to the test as Orwellian sounding and nothing more than an instrument for the further political manipulation of an independent peer review process. Nor is it needed. Senator Carr noted that scholars already have to prove the national benefit and impact of their research proposals.

So I ask the Labor government: what has changed now? I call on them to drop the hypocrisy and drop the Morrison era national interest test. It cannot be saved through redrafting. We should aspire to be a global research destination which has a reputation for fairness, rigour and the production of outstanding research. Amongst other things, this requires getting rid of the completely unnecessary and onerous national interest test and abolishing the political power which allows grants to be vetoed. Researchers and uni staff must have better pay and conditions, and research must be properly supported by investment and proper public funding.

If we are serious about treating our universities as a public good rather than as corporations, that has to involve care and respect for research, including proper public funding. I will be paying close attention to the ARC review and I look forward to continuing my discussions with researchers and universities and the government on what needs to change for Australian research.