We write on behalf of the International Australian Studies Association (InASA), a multidisciplinary organisation of scholars committed to fostering a better understanding of Australia’s complex history, culture and society, and sharing this with the world. Our members work across many areas, but are primarily clustered in humanities and social science disciplines.
We write in support of Senator Mehreen Faruqi’s Australian Research Council Amendment (Ensuring Research Independence) Bill 2018, and do so particularly in light of the refusal of six Australian Research Council Discovery Program (DP) awards by the Acting Minister Stuart Robert, announced on 24 December 2021, on top of then-Education Minister Simon Birmingham not approving eleven successful DP grants in late 2017.
InASA Treasurer Jon Piccini explained in 2018 (see Appendix 1), when Minister Birmingham’s decision not to approve the eleven grants became public:
“The Australian Research Council (ARC) administers the National Competitive Grants Program that, alongside the National Health and Medical Research Council, provides the lion’s share of external research funding to Australian academics.…These grants are incredibly competitive. In 2017, the ARC approved only 18% of discovery grant applications, and 17% of Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards. Only 20% of Future Fellowships were awarded in the 2018 round. Such high standards are maintained by a rigorous system of peer review. Each application is assigned two general assessors – members of a group of experts for the field of research in which the project falls. After initial review, each is sent to as many as six reviewers, who provide anonymous comments and ratings. By intervening at the end of the process – what should be a ministerial ’tick’ for the work of the ARC’s experts – the minister undermines this exacting process. What’s more, by rejecting only humanities projects, Birmingham has placed this discipline at a decided funding disadvantage.”
The same stands today. The Acting Minister’s decision not to approve six awards, based only on the most cursory of understandings, is a proverbial slap in the face to the hard-working academics on the ARC College of Experts and numerous assessors who have already assessed these applications in full and decided on their meritorious status.
Ministers Roberts and Birmingham justified their decisions not to approve the grants on the grounds that the projects were not in the national interest. Yet, in the 2018 application round, four grants declined a year earlier were successful and in the 2019 application round at least five were successful. Furthermore, that all unapproved grants in both 2017 and 2021 were in the humanities and social sciences – including projects to aid LGBTIQ young people and to better understand young people’s responses to climate change – suggests that a culture war mentality is driving the ministers’ decision-making, rather than any substantive problems with the projects.
The level of public debate about humanities research in general and the specific grants not approved by the Acting Minister is extremely limited and disappointing. Regular media campaigns ridicule excellent Australian research based only on the titles and public descriptions. InASA’s current president, Professor Noah Riseman, was the target of a campaign in 2018 when a Daily Telegraph article criticised the funding of his project on Australian transgender history (see Appendix 2). Yet, one output from that project was shortlisted for a 2021 Victorian Premier’s Community History Award, clearly demonstrating its value and public contribution. The ill-informed derision in Senate Estimates Committee towards the latest grants refused funding similarly dismissed research into Shakespeare, the canonical English dramatist whose work is central to university curricula in programmes such as the Ramsay Centre-funded Western Civilisation degrees – which this Federal Government has strongly supported.
If it is the government’s intention to internationalise Australian research and make us a centre for global research and development, then the denial of these grants, many of which had international collaborators, seems entirely counterproductive. Furthermore, that two out of the six grants focused on Australian-China relations is of particular concern for InASA, given we have worked hard to foster and encourage Chinese interest in Australian studies. Indeed, our organisation regularly offers a conference exchange with members of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies and has contributed to the work of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China. Australian Studies as a discipline is popular in China, with there currently being forty-one Australian studies centres in Chinese universities (including in Taiwan).
We have a better option already available. Internationally, comparable democracies which value academic freedom are guided by the Haldane Principle. This dictates that while governments should oversee funding bodies, individual projects should be judged by a process of expert peer-review. As a matter of urgency, Australia should ensure the independence of its research by removing the Ministerial veto from the Australian Research Council Act (2001). While we welcome Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek’s promise not to exercise her veto rights if Labor wins the next election, we believe that the guarantee against ministerial bias in Senator Faruqi’s bill removes this power as a potential danger to Australia’s research culture.
The use of the Ministerial power to decline grants approved by the ARC is personally devastating for the academics who invest substantial amounts of time in the application process and have funding withheld at the final stage for reasons that are ill-defined and unrelated to the quality of their research and its standing within the scholarly field. It is a diminishment of expert advice and commitment to a rigorous peer review process and the antithesis of the principle of academic freedom, which this government has so vociferously endorsed. Furthermore, the ministerial interventions in both 2017 and 2021 undermine confidence at home and abroad in our research system, leaving academics wondering if it is even worthwhile to seek funding in Australia. This is a profoundly disappointing outcome, and one we as members of InASA hope the Senate can ensure does not happen again by supporting Senator Faruqi’s bill.
 Jon Piccini and Dirk Moses, “Simon Birmingham’s intervention in research funding is not unprecedented, but dangerous,” The Conversation, 26 October 2018, https://theconversation.com/simon-birminghams-intervention-in-research-funding-is-not-unprecedented-but-dangerous-105737, accessed 21 February 2022.