Andrew Norton on Ministerial interference with research grants

Andrew Norton will be known to Cats of long standing as the only classical liberal in Carlton (Melbourne). He has been blogging for along time with a special interest in higher education and he has a serious national reputation in this field. Here he is concerned with the rather prickly topic of Ministerial interference in the weird and wonderful ways that our money is spent by academic researchers.

Senator Kim Carr has been around forever, and knows what questions to ask in Senate Estimates. And yesterday he got the Australian Research Council to reveal that, last year, then education minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 humanities grant recommendations. So far as we know, this hasn’t happened since Brendan Nelson was minister in the middle of the last decade (Gideon Haigh tells that story well).

As with the Nelson intervention, Birmingham’s decision has prompted outrage. The Australian Academy of the Humanities says that “this interference is entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry.”

By a nice coincidence the matter of freedom of inquiry came up among the performance indicators that the universities are supposed to meet according to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards that are prescribed somewhere. I didn’t know about that until I read the previous post. And I didn’t go looking for this item, it just turned up when I went to the Blogroll and dipped in.

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9 Responses to Andrew Norton on Ministerial interference with research grants

  1. Ian of Brisbane

    If the Minister can’t veto grants, then what is he/she there for?

  2. If the Minister can’t veto grants, then what is he/she there for?

    Indeed, the government gives, the government takes away.

    I loved it when the Twit was arguing about expert review of grants. Even a shallow analysis would likely find a fair bit on nepotism going on with every grant approval.

  3. Robbo

    A full list of the vetoed grants has been published on Tim Blair’s blog. They deserved to be dumped because they were nothing but self indulgent academic crap designed to suck large sums of taxpayers money to people who do nothing worthwhile for a living. A big tick to Simon Birmingham for doing the right thing.

  4. Entropy

    Andrew is arguing that the government should have no role in determining who or what gets a grant

    University autonomy is part of the small-c constitution of Australia. We don’t want academics to think that they need political approval for their research projects.

    From the government’s perspective, there are also political advantages in allowing academics and universities their freedom. Odd decisions and poor outcomes can all be blamed on them. But by intervening and rejecting some projects, Birmingham was impliedly taking responsibility for all the others. Some of these also seem rather niche: “A panel study of Kobe women’s interview discourse”, or “Early modern women and the poetry of complaint, 1540-1660”. It is better to just say that the funded projects were determined by an independent process than to have to explain why one is more deserving than the other.

    Research policy should be, and is, regularly reviewed to see how it is going. But it is hard to imagine that ministers micromanaging the choice of research projects is ever going to be part of a good system.

    At no point does he say whether or not the government should be providing the grants at all. He just assumes overall it is good.
    And also, who decides who gets the grants? They are invisible. The power and influence they are able to exert is quite significant

  5. Jessie

    Unable to find the full list of humanities grants redacted by Birmingham

    This from 2016 …………. including how the ARC changed published details of the grants……..
    In 18 years of applying for research support, I have never yet proposed a project with more pressing or important consequences. It contains so many of the things that conservatives fulminate over: declining marriage rates, rising violent and non-violent crime, and changing gender roles. If our project can provide new insights into intimate partner violence, or why young men take risks with their lives, or the reasons behind declining marriage rates, I would expect the likes of Bita, Potter and Blair to show at least the minimum humane curiosity.
    Rob Brooks
    Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW
    Disclosure statement
    Rob Brooks receives funding from the Australian Research Council. Which is how this whole column came about, actually
    If you’re going to ridicule research, do your homework

  6. a reader

    The list that blair links to has Ben Elton in a rage. Therefore it’s great in my books. What a load of academic self mastrubatory crap

  7. eb

    There seems to be a trend to always get an independent body to make decisions for Government. This allows the Govt to wash its hands of bad decisions, or alternatively, allows for “independence” from Govt.

    Sorry, but if its Govt money I think Govt should be making the decisions, and not handballing it to unaccountable bodies of “experts”.

    Unsurprisingly, the more money Govt has the more you are going to have these problems. Another argument for reducing the size of Govt.

  8. James Hargrave

    I have opined before, but using a modified pokies machine to decide which grant applications get the cash would be cheaper and simpler.

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