Min­is­ter qui­etly killed grants

Se­cret veto angers schol­ars

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Aus­tralia’s gov­ern­ment is stand­ing firm over its ve­to­ing of hu­man­i­ties re­search grants, with cabi­net min­is­ters claim­ing the projects would have been a waste of tax­pay­ers’ money.

But for­mer ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham’s se­cret de­ci­sion not to ap­prove 11 grants, ex­posed in a Se­nate es­ti­mates com­mit­tee hear­ing and first re­ported by Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, has un­leashed a storm of protest across academia.

The Univer­sity of New South Wales, whose re­searchers had pro­posed three of the quashed projects, said Mr Birm­ing­ham had un­der­mined the in­tegrity of the peer re­view process and raised “trou­bling” aca­demic free­dom is­sues.

“In­tel­lec­tual in­quiry and the fu­ture of hu­man­i­ties should not be de­cided in se­cret, or on a po­lit­i­cal ba­sis,” vice-chan­cel­lor Ian Ja­cobs said.

Mr Birm­ing­ham broke with long-es­tab­lished pro­to­col in re­fus­ing to fund the projects, which had ti­tles in­clud­ing “the mu­sic of na­ture and the na­ture of mu­sic”, “postOri­en­tal­ist arts of the Straits of Gi­bral­tar” and “Mul­ti­ple lives: Louis XIV prints, medals, and global ex­change”.

Col­lec­tively, the projects – which had been en­dorsed by the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil – would have at­tracted A$4.2 mil­lion (£2.3 mil­lion) in fund­ing.

Min­is­te­rial ap­proval of ARC project fund­ing rec­om­men­da­tions is usu­ally a for­mal­ity. The last ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter found to have ig­nored such rec­om­men­da­tions, Bren­dan Nel­son in 2004 and 2005, pro­voked fu­ri­ous head­lines ac­cus­ing him of cen­sor­ship.

Mr Birm­ing­ham, who is now min­is­ter for trade, said “the vast ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralian tax­pay­ers” would agree with his de­ci­sion.

“Min­is­te­rial sign-off ex­ists for a rea­son, which is for the gov­ern­ment to en­sure grant spend­ing is in keep­ing with the ex­pec­ta­tions of Aus­tralian tax­pay­ers,” Mr Birm­ing­ham told THE. “In my time as min­is­ter more than 99.7 per cent of all rec­om­mended grants were ap­proved and all fund­ing pro­posed for re­jected projects was ul­ti­mately com­mit­ted to other re­search projects.

“I make no apolo­gies for en­sur­ing that tax­payer re­search dol­lars weren’t spent on projects that Aus­tralians would rightly view as be­ing en­tirely the wrong pri­or­i­ties.”

Mr Birm­ing­ham’s de­ci­sion was kept se­cret – in­clud­ing from the re­searchers in­volved – in vi­o­la­tion of a pro­to­col es­tab­lished by the for­mer La­bor gov­ern­ment, which re­quired min­is­te­rial re­jec­tions of grants to be pub­licly de­clared.

Cur­rent ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Dan Te­han would not com­mit to dis­clos­ing sim­i­lar re­jec­tions in the fu­ture. “Si­mon Birm­ing­ham, like all min­is­ters, an­swers to the Aus­tralian peo­ple about how their tax­payer dol­lars are spent,” he said. “If he thought giv­ing $220,000 to re­search post-Ori­en­tal­ist arts of the Strait of Gi­bral­tar was not money well spent, I fully sup­port him.”

An­drew Nor­ton, higher ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme di­rec­tor with the Grattan In­sti­tute think­tank, said that Mr Birm­ing­ham – like Dr Nel­son be­fore him – would “cop a lot of blame for med­dling”.

Mr Nor­ton said that by ex­plic­itly

re­ject­ing the 11 projects, Mr Birm­ing­ham was im­ply­ing sup­port for all the projects that re­ceived fund­ing – in­clud­ing many that his col­leagues would find “a bit odd”.

“There is a con­ven­tion that the gov­ern­ment does not in­ter­vene in par­tic­u­lar re­search projects, and there are good rea­sons for that. Gov­ern­ments should set clear rules, know­ing that on oc­ca­sions there will be re­sults they don’t like but that on av­er­age the rules pro­duce good out­comes,” Mr Nor­ton said.

Mr Nor­ton added that the gov­ern­ment was also un­der­min­ing its own ar­gu­ment that peo­ple should be free to ex­press un­pop­u­lar views on univer­sity cam­puses. “Aca­demic free­dom and free­dom of speech are on the same page,” he said. “There shouldn’t be in­ter­fer­ence from on high when peo­ple want to pur­sue a par­tic­u­lar project.”

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