COMMENT: The Morrison government’s new research funding will force universities to rearrange priorities and existing work so they can meet narrowly defined commercial interests. By Alison Barnes.

Political interference threatens the future of Australian research

Scott Morrison visiting the University of Queensland vaccine lab in 2020.
Scott Morrison visiting the University of Queensland vaccine lab in 2020.
Credit: AAP / Darren England

Earlier this month, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced a $1.6 billion fund for manufacturing research. It was a slap in the face to talented academics across Australia, who perform vital work for the public good. It was also a worrying indicator of the future of research in this country.

The Australian Economic Accelerator program, which seeks to turn early-stage research ideas into commercial successes, confirms what we already knew from this government: only research that aligns with its own priorities will be supported.

The fine print in the plan is shocking. Institutions are being told they must rearrange their pay and promotion arrangements to favour commercially oriented researchers or they could miss out on research funding.

The government is also planning to “adjust” some $2 billion in existing university research funding and Research Block Grants processes – which is used to fund research training – to focus on commercialisation.

Additionally, it plans to “reform” core funding and grants processes managed by the Australian Research Council in line with its commercialisation interests. It has stated that basic research – the fundamental, curiosity-driven research that is the seed of innovation and discovery – will need to be repurposed so even it is oriented towards what are narrowly defined commercial interests.

This overemphasis on public funding that preferences commercial research over basic research could derail current research efforts and be detrimental to society in future.

Take for instance the basic mRNA research that led to the Covid-19 vaccines and which has saved millions of lives. While it may appear the vaccines were developed at record-breaking speed, they were in fact the result of decades of curiosity-driven research, undertaken by many thousands of scientists worldwide, including here in Australia. It was through the trial and error of these researchers that essential knowledge was gained and methods discovered that later made the rapid development of these innovative vaccines possible.

Indeed, when Chinese and Australian scientists published the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence online on January 10, 2020, without commercial benefit to the researchers, it was because of decades of pure research into this family of viruses. The same basic research, which could help us battle future global health catastrophes, now risks extinction through the government’s commercialisation obsession.

It’s vital to remember the application of this style of research extends far beyond pandemics. Without support for curiosity-driven, basic research, we wouldn’t have the innovations and discoveries that later created wi-fi, black box flight recorders or the cervical cancer vaccine, just to name a few.

Many of our greatest research achievements are in spite of the government’s efforts, not thanks to them. The funding announced by Morrison does not come close to the amount of money the Coalition has pulled from research during its tenure in government. Under three Liberal prime ministers, $1.47 billion has been slashed from the Australian Research Council alone. This represents not only thousands of research projects and untold numbers of research jobs, but the loss of knowledge, innovation and opportunity.

The Morrison government’s focus is not on research discovery. Instead, it’s about cash and control. The government exposed its agenda of politically motivated interference when, on Christmas Eve last year, the acting Education minister, Stuart Robert, quietly vetoed six Australian Research Council grants, further eroding the intellectual independence of Australian research.

While the decision itself was alarming, the minister’s total reluctance to explain his reasons for cancelling the research was even more so. It confirmed Australia’s research priorities are now determined at the whim of ministerial prerogative, independence and due process be damned.

Two of the six Discovery Project grants that were blocked by the minister focused on the study of modern China. The other humanities projects examined school students involved in climate action, early English literature and science-fiction novels, all of which where trivialised by the minister. When pressed, the only reason given by Robert for his veto was that, in his view, he didn’t think there was a “national interest” in the research. There was no further explanation.

The Australian Research Council’s decision-making process is thorough and robust. Each project is thoroughly reviewed at multiple stages, including by appointed subject matter experts. From there, the projects are assessed according to criteria including feasibility, innovation and value, and voted on by a college of experts. The work academics must put into applying for the grants themselves is the equivalent of undertaking a mini-research project.

Effectively we are being asked to believe the wisdom of Stuart Robert trumps this exhaustive process. That one minister, with the flick of a pen, is equipped to decide that highly scrutinised projects “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest” when the Australian Research Council has already considered both issues.

Unfortunately, there is no recourse for the researchers behind those projects. While the lack of transparency and fairness in the process is concerning, it is set to become even more opaque. Two weeks before Christmas, Robert foreshadowed his intention to undermine the independence and integrity of the council, announcing changes to the structure and governance of funding schemes.

Those changes included “alignment of grants” with “government-identified priorities”. Eight days later, the Australian Research Council announced its chief executive, Professor Sue Thomas, would step down from her role in January, five months before her contract was due to end.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the minister is deliberately attempting to dilute the knowledge, experience and collegial research culture of the college of experts to sway it towards the stated political interests of the Coalition, which is focused on its re-election strategy and intends to use narrowly defined areas of research commercialisation for future political leverage.

This is a tried and tested method for the Coalition. In 2018, it vetoed 11 grants in the humanities and introduced the “national interest test” into the minister’s approval for Australian Research Council funding, the provision on which Robert would later rely.

Even without considering political motivations, the recent changes to the Australian Research Council were made unilaterally, without warning or consultation. They represent fundamental changes to Australia’s research framework.

At least two members of the College of Experts have already resigned in protest. They clearly cannot bear the thought of what might happen if the Coalition is allowed to continue to unleash its ideology on research and Australian universities.

Others have also expressed their dismay and concern. Sixty-three laureate fellows of the Australian Research Council, including Nobel prize recipient and Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, are warning that research in Australia has become “political and short-sighted”. There are now real fears the government is risking our international reputation through this political manipulation of research.

Australian research and researchers are too important to be subjected to pork-barrel politics and the ideological agendas of governments of the day. This government cannot be allowed to continue slashing public funding for curiosity-driven research while being applauded by university managements and the business community for pouring money into a handful of cherrypicked manufacturing industries that complement its political agenda.

It is overt, undisguised and opportunistic political interference that threatens the very future of Australian research and it is blatantly at odds with our national interest.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Research and destroy".

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Alison Barnes is the national president of the National Tertiary Education Union.

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