The Australian | 6 September 2013
Catriona Jackson, chief executive of the science and technology peak group STA asked whether Australians want politicians picking and choosing which grant proposals deserve funding.
Scientists and research funding agencies understand that governments set priorities for research and that this is entirely valid given we do not have the resources to fund everything. Priority setting is very different from political picking and choosing. Only a quarter of research grant bids that go to the ARC each year are successful. Only the best of the very best get through the very careful peer review, expert-driven process.
On 5 September, the Coalition issued a brief press release promising an audit of “increasingly ridiculous research grants” awarded by the ARC. Coalition costings show a $103m cut from “reprioritising” ARC funds over four years with new spending on dementia, bowel cancer, diabetes and tropical health.
This appears to mean a 1.8% cut to the estimated $884m ARC budget for national competitive grants in 2013-14 with bigger cuts to come in following years, to the extent that the Coalition’s new priorities favour other institutions such as the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The Coalition’s chairman of the scrutiny of government waste committee, Jamie Briggs, singled out four projects, two involving philosophy and Hegel, one to do with “urban media art” and adaptation to climate change, and an exercise in anthropology “Sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt”.
Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said there is no contest between a robust system of peer review and any superficial reading of project titles.
Opportunities would be lost if we turn away from curiosity-driven research and its useful surprises. If we followed this path, penicillin would never have been discovered, if Einstein hadn’t been fiddling about, we wouldn’t have had people on the moon.
However, historian Philippa Martyr, who has written against “grantsmanship” in Quadrant, said her analysis of one ARC funding round turned up “projects that came very close to party political statements, and others that seemed to be repetitious investigation of already very-well-ploughed fields.
This is not innovation, or research excellence, or original investigation. These grants that I highlighted totalled some $3.3 million, mostly spread over three years. If I could find this much wasted money in this limited sample, I am certain a thorough audit could find more.
There is a history of Coalition figures ridiculing ARC grants, typically in the humanities and social sciences, as useless or activist.