Mature democracy depends upon independence and accountability of its anchor institutions and functions: the military, courts, police, hospitals, as well as universities.
In our sector, the Australian Research Council provides the key source of funding for independent research. Its schemes are competitive, with success rates ranging from 12 to 33 per cent. Put another way, between 67 and 88 per cent of all ARC applications are rejected. The grants that are endorsed for award therefore are not “handouts”, but have been scrupulously reviewed across multiple measures – of academic merit, of value for taxpayer money, and of wider benefit to Australian society. They also require months of preparation by dedicated teams of researchers and administrators.
In the humanities and social sciences, research benefit and impact is a gradual, and sometimes roundabout, process. Schemes like ARC Discovery Grants focus on the basic research needed to address consequential issues; domestically and within our wider region, the knowledge they produce creates pathways to political dialogue and economic exchange. Through engagement with journalists and stakeholders in industry and government sectors, research also informs and shapes social cohesion. Years and decades of research into social attitudes and actions establish the background against which bills like the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (2021), amendments to the NDIS Act (2021) and Marriage Equality (2017) come to be proposed and passed by the current government.
We join others in expressing our disappointment at the Education Minister’s decision on 24 December 2021 to withhold funding for a grant by Associate Professor Philippa Collin and colleagues to study Australian young people’s leadership and participation in the climate action movement and the implications of this for contemporary democracy. Alongside the higher education sector, the new knowledge promised by this research would undoubtedly impact and benefit the myriad organisations working on youth wellbeing and planetary health. Far from promoting a culture of open investigation that produces such impact, such decisions suggest instead a fear of what research can do.
We reiterate the many other requests to end ministerial vetoing of grants. No minister, however conscientious of national interest, can foretell the ways sustained and rigorous research can contribute to that interest. Having passed the exacting review of peers, the expertise of the reviewers and review process need to be granted the independence and respect that a democratic society like Australian citizens and residents deserve. Accordingly, we ask the current acting Minister for Education, Hon. Stuart Roberts MP, to rescind his veto.
To take action:
Professor Bronwyn Hayward (University of Canterbury, NZ) and colleagues from Oxford and Central European University have written an Open Letter from social science and climate change researchers which can be viewed here please consider signing and sharing this - it will be presented to the ARC and the Acting Minister for Education so that they can be sure to know that researchers from across disciplines internationally are concerned about political interference in research in Australia.