This chapter canvases key issues raised in relation to the Australian Research Council Amendment (Ensuring Research Independence) Bill 2018 (the bill) and examines specific concerns raised by stakeholders during the inquiry.
General views on the bill
There was broad support for the intent of the bill to remove the Minister's ability to reject research proposals recommended by the Australian Research Council (ARC). The importance of ensuring an independent process for awarding research grants in Australia was emphasised by many stakeholders. The vast majority of university and research community stakeholders gave their support to the bill.
Some stakeholders acknowledged the importance of democratic oversight and called for greater accountability and transparency in relation to the use of the Minister's discretionary power. Indeed, several submitters argued that should ministerial discretion remain in place, the Minister should be required to provide a public explanation of the decision, including the advice considered when a recommendation from the ARC is rejected.
Several stakeholders highlighted concerns about the bill's potential weakening of parliamentary oversight. Some stakeholders argued that this could undermine proper ministerial oversight and limit the Minister's ability to ensure the appropriate expenditure of public funds.
In addition, some stakeholders suggested the need for a broader review of the ARC, in response to concerns about its governance and processes and in light of recent direction provided by the Acting Minister for Education in his December 2021 Letter of Expectations.
Key issues raised by submitters
Stakeholders raised several key issues regarding the existing power of the Minister to exercise discretion in relation to the funding of research proposals recommended by the ARC. These included:
the impact of ministerial discretion;
the importance of peer review;
the need for parliamentary oversight;
transparency, accountability, and timeliness; and
the need for a broad review of the ARC.
Impact of ministerial discretion
Many submitters highlighted previous examples of where ministerial discretion was used to reject research funding proposals. A number of these submitters also noted that decisions to reject research grants have disproportionately affected the humanities, arts, and social sciences. However, the percentage of Discovery Project grants affected by the exercise of ministerial discretion was extremely low.
Several submitters drew the committee's attention to the impact that ministerial interventions have had on those involved in the grant process. For example, the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) argued:
The veto damages the careers and lives of investigators and collaborators, as well as students whose research is funded through these grants. It potentially forces people out of their academic careers or compels them to leave Australia to pursue their research, leading to the loss of some of our most talented minds.
Similarly, Professor Andrew Francis argued that 'the threat of possible veto that is not based on research excellence will force researchers in potentially sensitive areas to reframe or even redirect their work to safer topics'. Professor Francis noted:
In a previous round of vetoes—I forget whether it was the Simon Birmingham ones or the Brendan Nelson ones—I spoke to researchers in climate change and environment work, and they were really discussing among themselves how to badge their research. They wanted to do research in plant responses to different carbon dioxide levels, for instance, but they were worried about the political landscape and whether they could reframe what they were doing, or whether they had to simply drop that research, because the research is sometimes not possible without the funding.
Some stakeholders also argued that the ARC could potentially lose professionals and assessors who are willing to provide their time and expertise to assess grant applications because of ministerial intervention. For example, Professor Aidan Sims noted:
Ministerial veto has led experts to question whether to continue to support this process: why do so if the minister may later ignore their expert recommendations. This is not speculation. Since last year's vetoes became public, a number of colleagues have asked me why they should continue to assess for the ARC. This reduces the expertise the ARC can draw on to assess grants. Less-expert assessments will lead to less-informed funding decisions, and ultimately to our research dollars being less well spent.
Several stakeholders drew the committee's attention to Ministerial intervention leading to a loss of faith in the rigorous peer review process. For example, the committee heard from Professor Francis and Professor Sims, who both withdrew their expertise from the ARC's College of Experts due to the exercise of Ministerial discretion to veto research projects already approved by the College of Experts through a rigorous process.
In relation to these resignations, Professor James McCluskey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne, told the committee:
…it's a signal that there's now a lack of confidence in the peer review system when it comes to recommendations for funding. They are people who are experts in their field, whose opinion is sought, who've put in hours and hours of work—looking at grants, reading them, looking at the methodology, the logistics, the feasibility, the budgets, the quality of the science and the quality of the people—and then their opinion is rejected. It's not surprising that some of these people would walk away.
Professor Anthony Koutoulis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Tasmania, added:
I think this is a really big worry that we should all be worried about. The peer review process fundamentally is built on an understanding that there are like-minded individuals who together, collectively, over a period of time have set a standard that they each keep so they are themselves and collectively accountable.
Professor Jane Hall, Immediate Past President, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, also emphasised the wider impact of the Ministerial veto:
Those two professors are not the only two who resigned from the college of experts. I think this is evidence of what my colleague Professor Holden was saying about the lack of faith and the chilling effect that it has across our sector.
Views on risks to Australia's international reputation
Many stakeholders raised concerns that the existing power of the Minister to reject funding proposals recommended by the ARC was out of step with international best practice and could potentially impact Australia's ability to attract and retain the best researchers.
The Australian Political Sciences Association (ASPA) pointed out that research funding grants administered in the United Kingdom (UK), European Union and North America were determined through a non-departmental government body where 'decisions on which research projects to fund are made independently from government through expert peer review'.
Several stakeholders also emphasised that many comparable international bodies operate under the guidance of the Haldane Principle. For example, the ANU submitted:
In the [UK] research funding follows the 'Haldane Principle', under which the Government establishes the assessment criteria, funding envelope and other rules and a process of expert peer-review determines which projects are most worthy. The Haldane Principle has underpinned British research for more than a century and has been reaffirmed by multiple reviews over this period.
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association (NATSIPA) drew comparisons between funding bodies in Australia and those in similar international jurisdictions. This included the National Science Foundation (NSF) and The National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States. CAPA and NATSIPA noted that both the NSF and the NIH 'independently determine the funding allocation with accountability delivered through annual or biannual reporting'.
Disproportionate impact on First Nations researchers
CAPA and NATSIPA pointed out the disproportionate impacts of political interference on First Nations researchers in their joint submission:
The precedence's set by Ministerial vetoes has primarily been towards HASS projects and disproportionately disadvantage[s] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Furthermore, we are concerned that the prerequisite for funding individual Indigenous projects requires ministerial approval. Even if ministerial approval in this process is to be taken as a mere formality, it sends a negative message. It disrespects the sovereignty of the Indigenous community and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander college of experts within the ARC.
Dr Sadie Heckenberg, Past President of NATSIPA, also highlighted these impacts in her evidence to the committee:
How do we push that gate open to be heard in a system where it's not necessarily the minister who looks after Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues that has any particular say in Indigenous research? It's a minister who might not necessarily have any familiarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research—ways and knowings and beings and doings—and so we're seeing once more a colonial system put upon us, as researchers, who are already struggling to find a voice in this system.
The Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) Cluster at Western Sydney University highlighted the potential adverse effects of the Minister's existing power on Australia's international reputation:
…it may already be acting as a deterrent to talented researchers and scientists to move to Australia, or collaborate with Australian researchers, or for higher degree international candidates to enrol in Australian university programs.
Indeed, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Brian Schmidt stressed that the existing ministerial power to refuse research grants limits the ability of universities to promote Australia as a destination of choice for researchers:
…research is a global talent issue. People around the globe who I talk to, trying to recruit them to come to Australia, have noticed what's going on and have expressed their concerns, to the point of saying, 'I am not going to come to Australia until you sort this out.' Those are conversations I am having with people at the highest level of institutions globally. It is literally affecting my ability to attract talent to Australia…
Similarly, Professor Sims pointed to the strong statements from former heads of the National Science Foundation (USA), the European Research Council, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany) as evidence that the 'ministerial veto has damaged and will continue to damage international confidence in Australia's research system'.
Views on the chilling effect of political interference
Many stakeholders raised concerns about the chilling effect of the Ministerial veto on researchers and their work. For example, Dr Matthew Brown, Deputy Chief Executive of the Group of Eight, told the committee:
There seems to be a preponderance of vetoes in specific disciplines, mainly social sciences. So it is only natural for researchers to feel that they need to be very careful about the proposals they are putting forward because there is the possibility of a veto. So, yes, it has a chilling effect.
Mr Paul Harris, the Executive Director of Innovative Research Universities, added:
In particular, as my colleague from the Group of Eight has said, if there's a sense that particular disciplines are being targeted, then we would potentially see that chilling effect in the research community—and we would argue that is bad for Australia. We want all the different ideas coming from wherever they come from across many different disciplines, and we would argue very strongly that the humanities and social sciences are hugely important for the future of Australia and its place in the world.
Other stakeholders highlighted the impacts of political interference on researchers, particularly early career researchers. For example, Professor Peter Tregear, Member, Academics for Public Universities told the committee:
I think the word 'chilling' is not inappropriate—and I take Senator Canavan's point that the number of grants might be small, but, given that the number of grants in the humanities is also pretty small in the ARC, this is not something that can be marked as a kind of trivial or incidental impact. The fact is that, in writing these grants—and I should declare: I've written several and I should say I've been largely unsuccessful, so I know exactly what we're talking about!—you are trying, in a sense, to constantly just sort of self-censor or to try and think about: 'How can I project this into the ARC system and beyond in a way that's going to be successful?' The consequence, particularly in the humanities—and it has already been noted—is that the pathways for getting research grants in the humanities is very narrow. We're not like the States, where there are great philanthropic trusts funding non-science-and-industry research grants. The ARC is largely it. If you don't get one of these things, or get this support, as an early career researcher, your career is likely to be foreclosed.
Professor Deborah Sweeney, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice President, Research, Enterprise and International at Western Sydney University, told the committee:
I just want to emphasise the chilling, devastating and demoralising effect it's having on those researchers. Despite knowing that their researchers of high quality went through a college of experts, peer review was recommended for funding. It creates a sense of unknowing what it is about their research that is vetoed and how they will be able to manage to attract funding from other sources or through the ARC, at a later stage, to continue their work.
We have to be careful to understand that this not only affects those academics but the whole team that those academics are leading. Those teams, often, of young researchers, of our higher degree research students, are also demoralised, because they see the effect this is having on their colleagues. So the effect is broad, not just limited to those particular grants and applicants but to the ecosystem of researchers that are surrounding and supporting this work.
Professor Koutoulis also spoke to this chilling effect:
Further to my colleagues' comments about the impact on not just individuals but the teams around them, most of these fundings, particularly in the humanities, are for people. These are our early career researchers who will be our future generation, our future leaders, who will take us to those unchartered, unknown territories, and we want them to be prepared.
Importance of peer review
Many stakeholders highlighted the fundamental importance of peer review in the ARC's assessment of research proposals for funding. Many stakeholders argued that the ministerial veto would undermine confidence in the independence and integrity of this process. For example, Universities Australia argued:
Ministerial intervention into the operations of the ARC threaten the integrity of the research system and Australia's capacity to continue to be a significant contributor to the global research effort. Australian governments, rightly, have and do determine the priorities of funding schemes and criteria, however, where the process of allocating research grants is through a robust peer review system built on academic expertise, governments ought not to exercise the capacity to intervene in the outcomes of the assessment process absent of evidence of a clear and compelling reason that can be defended publicly.
Several submitters emphasised the rigorous and comprehensive assessment process that is currently undertaken by the ARC. For example, Professor Sims commented that he had not encountered any other funding scheme 'with such strong mechanisms to ensure benefit and value-for-money in research recommended for funding'.
Indeed, Professor Francis elaborated on the scrutiny process undertaken by the ARC for each research proposal:
Consider that each proposal for an amount that is usually about $450,000 over three years, will receive approximately a full day's analysis from each of four Expert Assessors chosen by the panel, plus the time that members of the panel take reading and discussing the proposal. Every single proposal receives this attention, and 80% are not able to be funded. The vast majority of most funding received is spent on hiring a junior researcher to work on the project, making the schemes an integral component of Australia's researcher development pipeline.
The Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH) noted the potential adverse effects on the broader public perception of the ARC's peer review processes that may arise from the continued use of Ministerial discretion. For instance, the AAH argued:
A Minister who rejects this expert advice risks eroding trust in the ARC's processes, and jeopardises the range of ideas, possibilities and capacities that Australia needs its research system to develop to support our ability to grasp new opportunities or deal with the unforeseen.
In addition, CHASS argued against the continued use of Ministerial discretion on the grounds that such a power would undermine 'the rigorous and independent procedures of ARC grant review'. CHASS argued that 'allowing non-expert Ministers to deny funding based on application titles and 100-word national interest statements, are a procedural error'.
At the hearing, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne, Professor James McCluskey, argued that the Minister's use of power to reject research proposals signalled a 'lack of confidence' in the peer review system:
The peer review system is an honour system. Most of it's done with people lending their time free of charge. Certainly, all the independent assessments are done as part of a system of good will that exists among academics. So, in a sense, you're corrupting something that's already done, really, in the best interest of the community at no cost to anyone other than themselves.
The Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) argued that the ministerial discretionary power of veto compromised academic freedom and research independence:
Ministerial discretionary veto casts a pall over this culture of free inquiry and research independence; it makes researchers wary of exploring new or controversial projects, it diminishes the scope of research topics to those deemed safe or potentially approvable, and it constrains research inquiry in ways that undermine academic communities and institutional research cultures, which are based on principles of independent peer-review and the core value of research independence.
The Australian University Heads of English (AUHE) also argued that ministerial discretion to reject funding proposals 'undermines the core purpose of universities as autonomous institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and new knowledge'. AUHE further noted the importance of academic freedom in the production of quality research outputs:
We stress that this autonomy is crucial to the capacity for universities to serve the public good. When researchers can freely apply themselves to the most challenging problems without fear of censorship or interference, it yields the ideas and solutions that allow society to meet challenges of the scale of climate change and spiralling global inequality.
However, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) cautioned against relying solely on the advice provided by academics through the ARC. The IPA argued:
The amendment implicitly assumes that the ARC, its panellists, and reviewers are more in tune with the public's notion of the most pressing national research funding priorities than an elected government. But the ARC committee members, and its 'panel of experts', are almost entirely academics – a section of society completely unrepresentative of the Australian people and notoriously out of touch with reality. Their advice is welcome, their research work is appreciated and valued – but that does not mean that the public, through their elected representatives in parliament, must fund exactly what this group wants without any questions.
Another stakeholder argued that greater infringements on academic freedom are imposed by other academics who determine 'which researchers and what research is funded', as well as the ability of industry (for example, by the provision of honours and other research funding) to influence peer review processes, as opposed to the use of ministerial discretion.
Many stakeholders recognised a legitimate role for government in determining the parameters of government-funded research programs. However, opinion was divided between a majority who felt this role should be limited to setting strategic direction, establishing guidelines and processes only, with decisions about individual funding applications made via independent peer review (in line with the Haldane Principle) and those who saw ministerial discretion as a necessary accountability mechanism.
For example, some stakeholders who saw a need for ministerial discretion, suggested that there should be stricter limits on the use of this power. The University of Queensland recommended that ministerial discretion, if retained, be reserved for cases with national security implications or where there are concerns about process integrity. However, the Queensland University of Technology argued that this approach would be inadequate as it 'could never be exhaustive of all possible legitimate reasons for intervention'.
In a similar vein, while suggesting there may be a case for removing ministerial intervention, Mr Andrew Ray cautioned against its removal without a replacement mechanism given that the ARC may not have access to all the information available to the Minister.
In response to concerns about the use of ministerial discretion beyond a limited set of circumstances, the ARC stated that several ministerial decisions had actually been made on the basis of due diligence or national security considerations. The ARC acknowledged that there was room for the ARC to improve its communication around these matters:
I also heard several of the people … talk about the fact that they have no concerns about national security or due diligence issues being taken into consideration by a minister in making a decision. Several of the vetoes that we've seen—noting that they're actually not vetoes; they're applications that weren't approved by ministers—were in those circumstances. So I do think that there is a lack of understanding of exactly what's being undertaken… and that it is their concern that any response in this way does lead to a lack of credibility. I think that's something where the ARC needs to step up and improve its communication in relation to that.
However, some stakeholders stressed the importance of ministerial discretion to preserving parliamentary oversight and ensuring the appropriate expenditure of public funds. For example, the ARC noted that the bill appeared to undermine the Minister's responsibilities under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 and would, in effect, make 'the Minister answerable to the CEO, weakening Parliament's oversight'.
Similarly, the Queensland University of Technology suggested that the bill could potentially conflict with the Minister's obligation to 'exercise due diligence in certain extraordinary circumstances that may be difficult to anticipate but not impossible to envisage'. Likewise, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) asserted that the bill, if passed, would effectively eliminate 'oversight of the ARC by a representative of the taxpayer who ultimately funds the ARC'.
While the Australian Catholic University favoured process improvements over the 'ad-hoc' use of ministerial discretion, it highlighted the principle of responsible government as a 'fundamental tenet of Australia's Westminster system of parliamentary democracy'. Accordingly, it argued that the bill would sever the link between funding decisions and accountability for those decisions:
Under this principle, ministers are accountable to the Parliament, and ultimately, to the people for decisions taken within their areas of portfolio responsibility. This includes the actions of departments or agencies within their control. The absolute elimination of ministerial discretion over the allocation of public funds—as proposed by the bill—would break this nexus between responsibility and accountability.
Mr Ashley Midalia, Director of Government, Policy and Strategy at the ACU elaborated further, arguing against removing the discretionary power which would result in the minister 'being rendered a rubber stamp':
Ultimately the minister is responsible for the expenditure of public funds within his or her portfolio and the minister is accountable for that expenditure to the parliament, which is itself accountable to the people. If we break that chain, we cannot hold the minister responsible, and decisions on the allocation of public funds will rest entirely with an unelected body that is not accountable to the public.
The IPA also noted that the bill could limit the government's ability to enforce its desired policy directions:
For example, the present government has flagged that it wants 'greater collaboration with industry to stimulate more research and development (R&D) activity across our economy'. This is a political decision that would be a legitimate focus of debate. An elected government has a right to set such priorities and have the means to enforce them on the ARC. This would be reduced with the proposed amendment.
Alignment with the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (NHMRC Act)
Some stakeholders disputed the need for ministerial discretion and pointed to the NHMRC as a comparable agency that was not subject to discretionary powers. For example, the Australian Political Studies Association argued that while the NHMRC is accountable to the health minister, 'the Minister plays no formal role in the authorisation of funding'.
Likewise, La Trobe University emphasised what it saw as the differing roles of the responsible Ministers in relation to the ARC and the NHMRC:
For the ARC, the Minister responsible has veto powers under the Act, whereas the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 prescribes that its Minister may only give directions to the CEO, Council and Principal Committees which are of a 'general nature'.
In particular, the Minister responsible for the NHMRC is not permitted to direct the CEO, the Council, or a Principal Committee in relation to the 'recommendation and allocation of research funds… or the treatment of particular scientific, technical, or ethical issues'.
However, in response to questions raised at the public hearing on 9 March 2022, the NHMRC released a statement clarifying the responsible Minister's role and obligations under the NHMRC Act and indicating that this includes the ability to exercise ministerial discretion:
The Minister for Health is the decision marker under the NHMRC Act. The Minister is able to approve some or all or none of the grants recommended by the CEO. There is nothing in the NHMRC Act that prevents a Minister from 'exercising a veto' on any particular grant.
The committee notes that there were different views about the powers within the NHMRC Act. Following the hearing, the University of Tasmania responded to a question taken on notice that:
…based on advice from our legal team, our understanding of the NHMRC Act is there is nothing explicitly in the Act that gives the Minister a right to give a direction to the NHMRC CEO, Council or Principal Committee to review, change or withdraw research funding decisions other than a direction of a general nature.
Section 5E (2) provides that any direction must be of a general nature only and our legal position is that any veto needs to be consistent with this clause. By refusing a recommendation, this cannot be said to be a direction of a general nature. It substantially alters, undermines and disregards the recommendation made by the CEO of the NHMRC who has relied on robust processes for grant scrutiny and a system of peer review that forms the basis of competitive research grants in Australia.
In addition, both the ARC and the department indicated that they were unaware of any legislation that would require a decision-maker to make a decision 'in accordance with the views or recommendations of a third party'.
Transparency, accountability and timeliness of decision-making
While acknowledging the need to retain ministerial discretion in ARC grant funding decisions, a range of stakeholders argued for greater transparency and accountability in the use of this discretionary power. Some participants also highlighted the importance of timely decision-making and announcements in relation to ARC grants.
Transparency and accountability in exercising ministerial discretion
While not debating the need for ministerial discretion in relation to ARC grant funding, a number of stakeholders stressed the importance of transparency and accountability in the exercise of this discretion. For example, the Australian Catholic University suggested that the Minister be required to 'table in Parliament clear and detailed reasons for their decision'.
This view was shared by the Queensland University of Technology, which argued that the aim was not to 'prevent a Minister from ever departing from the ARC CEO's advice … but to make it difficult for them to do so without due reason, and impossible to do so without being accountable to the Parliament'. To this end, QUT suggested that the Act be amended to require the details of, and rationale for, ministerial decisions to be tabled in both houses of Parliament and included in the ARC annual report.
Several participants who supported the removal of ministerial discretion raised the need for transparency should the veto be retained. For example, the Group of Eight stressed the need for 'full transparency on the reasons and processes leading to the Ministerial decision to avoid the risk and perception of political interference'. Similarly, Universities Australia advocated for a 'predictable, transparent and informed process' for ministerial decision-making in relation to individual research applications.
The University of Melbourne agreed with this view and suggested that, if retained, ministerial discretion 'should be codified along with a requirement for a detailed explanation against set criteria as to the reason, within a statutory time frame'.
However, the department pointed out that strengthening the National Interest Test (NIT), which was identified as a priority reform for the ARC in 2022, would serve to increase the transparency of ARC grants processes by ensuring that 'taxpayer-funded Australian Government research grant monies are directed to areas of national importance, and deliver value for money to the Australian public'.
The role of the NIT in the ARC grant assessment process was also highlighted by Mr Alec Webb, Executive Director of the Regional Universities Network:
The national interest test is designed to ensure that scarce public funds are spent in national interest, and the responses of applicants are currently considered by the Australian Research Council as part of their recommendation for research grant funding.
While some stakeholders raised concerns about the use of the NIT as a rationale for application of the ministerial veto, the department stressed that the implementation of a stronger NIT by the ARC would reduce the likelihood that 'the Minister would need to intervene to ensure the effectiveness of its application'.
Improved clarity of the NIT was also supported by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as a way to help 'the ARC CEO to fairly assess National Interest Test statements and assure political leadership and the public that there is value in the research they fund'.
Timely decision-making and announcements
Some submitters expressed concerns about the timeframes for ARC grant funding decisions and announcements. For example, the University of Melbourne noted that there 'can be a lag of up to three months' from the time recommendations are made by the College of Experts to the time outcomes are announced, which 'particularly affects early career researchers and those on fixed-term contracts who may be dependent on salaried roles supported by ARC-funded grants'. From an institutional perspective, the University of Melbourne also argued that:
The extended delay adds to existing uncertainty about establishing the research project and forthcoming employment opportunities. The lag also inhibits institutional planning, as researchers and departmental leaders await news on funding outcomes prior to confirming teaching and research commitments for the following year.
Professor Sven Rogge, President, Australian Institute of Physics, highlighted further impacts of these delays:
Arbitrary delays in announcing grant outcomes through the ministerial sign-off jeopardise research projects and links with industry partners, lead to the loss of highly skilled early career research near the end of their contract, and diminish Australia's international competitiveness.
Evidence provided to the committee also highlighted the significance of transparent deadlines by which the ARC CEO must make recommendations to the minister, given the impact on job security and careers of researchers.
In response to these concerns, the Group of Eight recommended that:
…the Australian Government set standards for reasonable timeframes for decision-making on ARC scheme application rounds, recognising that careers and livelihoods depend on the timeliness and reliability of the funding process.
Broad review of the ARC
While generally supporting the broad intent of the bill, a number of stakeholders argued that a much broader review and reformation of the ARC and its processes was required. For example, the Group of Eight stated that the bill, while important, only addressed a symptom of the underlying problems with the ARC and amounted to 'tinkering at the edges of an outdated funding system which is long overdue for review'. Dr Matthew Brown, Deputy Chief Executive of the Group of Eight, elaborated:
Just to be clear, what we're actually asking for is an overhaul of the ARC. That's really the priority. We see the issues that have come to light over the last few years as being quite serious, revealing issues around governance and transparency ... Touching on the role of parliament, I think changes to the ARC Act are needed to bring it into the 2020s rather than the turn of the century. … We see what's being discussed today around this legislation as a symptom of those root causes, of structural issues with the ARC.
The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA) expressed a similar view and stressed that the bill, while serving an important function, left 'numerous challenges and potential inconsistencies and inefficiencies in the Australian research ecosystem'. To this end, the ASSA suggested that a more fulsome review of Australia's research ecosystem would be desirable. In a similar vein, stakeholders such as the Australian Academy of Humanities and the National Tertiary Education Union recommended a broad review of national research priorities and objectives.
In arguing for reform of the ARC and its processes, both the Group of Eight and the University of Melbourne emphasised the length of time (20 years) that had passed since the Act was last examined. As explained by the University of Melbourne, an independent review would be timely and would help the ARC navigate the opportunities and challenges presented by the current research environment:
Given the passing of two decades since the ARC Act was last reviewed holistically, and the significant changes proposed for the ARC programs and governance in recent months, it is timely to commission an independent review of the Australian Research Council and its governance to refresh its operations to navigate the opportunities and challenges ahead in supporting a world class research ecosystem in Australia.
While it stressed the importance of an independent grant assessment process, the ANU also agreed that it would be 'timely to conduct a wide-ranging review of the role and governance of the ARC to ensure it is aligned to the needs of Government and other stakeholders'.
The committee would like to thank all stakeholders for their engagement in this inquiry process. The committee recognises the Australian Research Council's (ARC's) role as an important source of funding for high quality research, including supporting researchers to undertake cutting edge research to advance knowledge and discovery, and meet Australia's priorities and support our economy and society.
The committee notes the concerns raised by submitters in relation to the impact of ministerial decisions to not fund research grants that have been recommended by the ARC. Stakeholders highlighted fears that ministerial intervention could compel talented researchers to leave Australia and potentially discourage experts and assessors from participating in the ARC's peer review process. The committee also heard concerns that Australia's international reputation could be impacted, leading to reduced opportunities for universities to attract and collaborate with international researchers.
Stakeholders also expressed concern that ministerial intervention could undermine confidence in the integrity and independence of the ARC's grant assessment process. Some stakeholders argued that Australia's research reputation could suffer because of funding decisions that are subject to interference, or the perception of interference, from the Minister. As a result, many stakeholders pointed to similar international jurisdictions that have adhered more closely to the Haldane Principle.
Despite this, many participants acknowledged that the Australian Government (the government) has a legitimate and important role in determining the parameters for government-funded research programs—although opinions on the form and extent of this role vary. While noting the arguments of some stakeholders, that the government's role should be limited to setting guidelines and processes only, the committee agrees with the view that requiring the Minister to 'rubber stamp' projects recommended by the ARC Chief Executive Officer would essentially override the basic principle of responsible government.
In the committee's view, removing ministerial discretion would raise serious questions about whether the Minister was fulfilling their obligations under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. It would also prevent the Minister from preventing projects being funded where there are due diligence or national security concerns—both grounds that were identified as reasonable and necessary by some stakeholders, particularly as the ARC is unlikely to have access to all the information available to the Minister.
In addition, the committee accepts the evidence provided by both the ARC and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment that they are unaware of any existing legislation that imposes a similar requirement on a decision‑maker. Several participants in the inquiry pointed to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) as an example of an agency not subject to discretionary powers. For example, the University of Tasmania and Western Sydney University provided information that aligned with that view. However, the NHMRC confirmed that there is nothing in the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 that prevents the relevant Minister from exercising discretion in relation to grant approvals.
Since it was established in 2001, the ARC has awarded over $13 billion to support around 30,000 unique research projects, large and small, across all disciplines except medical research. This includes 70 centres of excellence, over 200 laureate fellowships and around 1,800 future fellows. In 2020–21, total National Competitive Grants Program funding was $807 million which represents approximately seven per cent of the government's investment in research and development. Of some significance, the committee noted that, for the Discovery grant program, the Minister approved 587 of the 593 or 98.98 per cent of recommended projects.
Therefore, on balance, the committee believes the Act in its present form serves the national interest by ensuring the Minister remains accountable for the appropriate expenditure of government funds in relation to ARC grants. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the bill not be passed.
However, this does not mean that change is unwarranted, and the committee is mindful that this inquiry has unearthed broader concerns about the ARC and its governance and research funding processes. Given that is has been 20 years since the legislation governing the ARC was last examined in detail, the committee agrees with the view that elements of the Australian Research Council Act 2001 may no longer be fit for purpose and may need to be amended to help the ARC manage the opportunities and challenges arising from today's research ecosystem.
Accordingly, the committee accepts the argument that a broad review of the ARC is necessary and recommends that the government commission an independent review of the ARC, including its governance and research funding processes, with a view to maximising the impact of public investment in university research and driving a strong national system of research and development. The review should also have regard to the directions issued to the ARC by the Minister for Education and Youth in his Letter of Expectations dated 6 December 2021.
The committee recommends that the Senate does not pass the bill.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government commission an independent review of the Australian Research Council (ARC), including its governance and research funding processes, with a view to maximising the impact of public investment in university research and driving a strong national system of research and development. The review should also have regard to the directions issued to the ARC by the Minister for Education and Youth in his Letter of Expectations dated 6 December 2021.
Senator the Hon Matthew CanavanSenator Ben Small
ChairLiberal Senator for Western Australia
Nationals Senator for Queensland
Senator Perin Davey
Nationals Senator for New South Wales