The tyranny of political agendas

The screaming has dulled to a low roar over the vetoing of 11 Australian Research Grants (ARC) by former education minister Simon Birmingham.

But the war continues. New education minister Dan Tehan, with all the hokey jingoism he could muster, declared all ARC research must now pass some sort of national interest test.

What that means is anyone’s guess but we can be pretty sure it won’t be in the national interest. For goodness sake, does that mean research about anything anywhere else in the world will be precluded from securing an Australian Research Council grant. It’s the bubble syndrome of populist politicians who make up policy on the run.

Speaking on ABC radio a few days ago, Kim Carr, shadow minister for science and research, noted that: “The minister’s proposals are highly subjective and deeply personal. They do not protect the Australian research system from politically-motivated interventions and do not protect Australia’s international reputation from misguided, ignorant appeals to cretinism.” Carr has always had a way with words.

Whose interest?

It would seem the ARC is busily trying to work out what a national interest test might look like. On Monday it announced it was anticipating a delay in releasing the opening dates for the 2020 funding rounds for Discovery Projects and Discovery Indigenous. No doubt scrambling to interpret Tehan’s agenda.

I hate to state the obvious, but surely research which focuses on indigenous issues is, well, in the national interest. One would hope so.

And it’s also worth noting that we actually already have national research priorities which are “designed to increase investment in areas of immediate and critical importance to Australia and its place in the world”. They are also reviewed every two years, although that time frame has been abridged somewhat as a consequence of the recent shenanigans. Undoubtedly, the 11 rejected grants would have been assessed through the lens of the existing national priorities.

But as Tehan said in a statement: “The value of specific projects may be obvious to the academics who recommend which projects should receive funding but it is not always obvious to a non-academic.”

So, it’s about the nomenclature, mate. As we Aussies like to say: “would (these research grants) pass the pub test?” I don’t know what you talk about in your pub, but it probably is the credibility and validity of research proposals because that’s what wonks talk about over a pint of lager. Isn’t it?

Testing the testers

Back to Carr, who has a serious amount of skin in the science and research game having entered the Senate in 1993 and who has held various ministry and shadow ministry positions in the science arena pretty well ever since 2001.

With grant application success rates slumping to an all-time low of 10%, Carr told ABC radio that it could be pretty well guaranteed that any grant that managed to get approved had already gone through the national interest ringer.

He also noted that he would reintroduce a protocol which required a dissenting minister to explain the reasons behind his or her rejection of an application.

Whys and wherefores

As the two researchers behind one of the rejected proposals wrote in The Conversation:

“One cannot help but wonder: did the minister or any of his staff read our application or any of the other ten he chose to reject?”

They have a point. Their rejected research proposal was called “Greening Media Sport: The Communication of Environmental Issues and Sustainability in Professional Sport”.

As they wrote: “Our project seeks to investigate and map a growing range of environmental programs and initiatives around the world, and to help Australia – in the face of serious ecological challenges – capitalise on the fact that it is a sporting nation. It is certainly an objective thought worth pursuing by members of the Sports Environment Alliance, which include the AFL, Tennis Australia, Netball Australia and Cricket Australia.”

Seems to tick a lot of boxes. National interest. Tick. Sport. Tick. Industry partnerships. Tick.

What’s there not to like? Oh, this being the pro-coal, anti-Paris accord ideological Right, probably the words “climate change”.

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