A parliamentary inquiry will examine the power of ministers to veto research funding after the Greens successfully returned their bill to remove power from the Senate Education Committee.
This follows the widely criticized intervention by Acting Education Minister Stuart Robert last year to block funding for six humanities research projects that had already been independently approved by experts as part of a a peer review process.
The investigation will be an opportunity for the actors to explain their opposition to power after several interventions by Coalition ministers in recent years to block funding they considered contrary to the national interest.
On Wednesday, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi successfully moved a motion to have her 2018 Research Independence Guarantee Bill considered by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee.
The Bill amends the Australian Research Council Act to remove the Minister’s discretion to approve a research proposal recommended by the Australian Research Council by requiring the Minister to approve recommended proposals and associated expenditure.
“I look forward to hearing from universities and researchers,” Ms. Faruqi tweeted shortly after receiving Senate support.
“It is high time we removed political interference in research funding.
BREAKING: My ARC inquiry referral has just been unanimously supported by the Senate!
I look forward to hearing from universities and researchers. It is high time we removed political interference in research funding. Thank you to everyone who contacted senators about this. https://t.co/52v8U65okH
— Mehreen Faruqi (@MehreenFaruqi) February 9, 2022
The Greens senator originally introduced the bill in 2018 following the intervention of then education minister Simon Birmingham to block 11 humanities and arts projects. The bill lapsed at the end of the last Parliament and was reinstated in 2019, but was never debated.
“No minister should be able to dictate which research projects are funded and which are not,” Ms Faruqi said at the time.
“The true test of academic freedom is that it must be free from political interference, no matter who is in government. It should be based solely on a rigorous independent evaluation process.
The Acting Education Minister’s latest intervention on Christmas Eve drew even more criticism and condemnation from across the university community.
Robert justified his veto by saying the six projects “do not demonstrate value for taxpayer dollars or contribute to the national interest”.
Labor has demanded that any minister blocking funding for a project be required to explain the decision to parliament, but has refrained from pledging to remove the power.
This led Australian National University vice-chancellor and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt to say this week that “political interference has bipartisan support”.
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