Institutions tell the government to get politics out of science research funding

After years of controversy about ministers personally vetoing science research funding without reasons, the Australian science community has called on the federal government to get its fingers out of science funding.

The call comes in a week the US has announced a series of possible reforms to prevent unruly governments from undermining the foundations of national scientific research. The Biden White House response is reported to be a direct measure to stop meddling like that which occurred under the Trump administration.

The main Australian science institutions have taken the opportunity provided by the Albanese government’s request for submissions on a review of the Australian Research Council Act, saying government interference has reduced trust and respect.

The Australian Academy of Science says that the current state of Australian research lacks strategic direction and is a result of a “piecemeal interference and ad hoc interventions” over two decades that has “demoralised researchers, minimised efficiency and disadvantaged the nation”.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering explained in its submission why it is critical that the ministerial veto be abandoned: “There is no individual or organisation that can predict where the biggest impact from research and innovation will come from.

“Curiosity-driven research that is borne out of genuine intellectual freedom, and critical appraisal by colleagues, has led to some of the world’s most important discoveries that have in turn shaped the world in which we live.”

A Flinders University spokesperson told Cosmos: “The Act should make it clear that the Minister responsible for the ARC [currently the Minister for Education] can only intervene in extraordinary cases where there is a genuine national security issue that would warrant withholding of funding.”

Ryan Winn, the CEO of the Australian Council of Learned Academies, which did not submit a response to the review, says the challenges facing Australia are complex.

Ryan Winn

“There is a wide range of research being undertaken in Australia that may or may not lead to a commercial outcome and equally knowledge about our and others’ culture, societal transitions and art that can provide important insights into our past, present and future world.

“It is therefore important to support a wide range of thinking and investigation that progresses our collective knowledge, based on the advice and consideration of the experts in the field, not by politicians who likely have limited expertise, or personal preferences, in understanding or assessing the specifics of research proposals.”

Winn said: “Few would not agree that government should not fund any and all research, with Universities, philanthropy, and industry potential sources for these wider interests. The government, rightly, should set clear selection criteria and parameters for what research is in the public interest, including potentially a statement of national benefit and need that could be derived.

“With this then let the ARC, supported by relevant and respected experts, determine the most impactful areas, projects and researchers to fund.

“An honest and genuine dialogue is needed between the public, government and the research sector on setting priorities and expectations for publicly funded research, and a number of current processes underway look likely to achieve this.

Science research funding debate also raises questions about STEM

Winn also suggests that the value of humanities social science funding has been undermined in recent years.

“Australia needs a discussion and more nuanced understanding of the value of research in the humanities and social sciences in Australia and the policy, products and knowledge they develop.

“These are critical for Australia’s economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes. These disciplines seem to be most commonly the focus of government’s interventions in research and higher education in general.

“I fear we are at risk of promoting and investing in the STEM disciplines, which are needed, at the detriment of wider critical think and creative skills that Australia needs – for example that, take innovations from the lab to commercial successes, build understandings to address geopolitical tensions, improve our understanding of natural disaster resilience and support a thriving and productive society free of poverty and racism.”

Winn says he believes the government is genuine in its approach to find new funding mechanisms.

“Yes, which is very pleasing and that there appears to be a genuine openness to engagement as seen by the number of reviews underway.

“The challenge is that the reviews of the science, higher education and industry deal with various aspects of the research ecosystem system, but it will be how these are all brought together to ensure the system as a whole is effective, efficient and driving our knowledge economy. Time will tell whether the government is hearing or actually listening.”

The Vice President of the International Science Council, Professor Anne Husebekk, who specialises in policy, told Cosmos that Australia’s science settings could be much more focussed.

“It is not politicians to decide upon research projects, but the research funding agencies (which) will get their funding through ministries.

“In Norway there is a 10-year overarching plan for research – the plan is approved by the parliament and is mission based, which gives the researchers freedom to apply for projects within a broad plan. “Universities are financed by the government, and are to a great extent responsible for basic research not at all influenced by politicians.

“In this way, research is not fully free, but in my opinion free enough. The politicians may of course restrict funding to universities and this influences the capacity and may restrict “science as a global common good”.

Husebekk accepts there are benefits and costs with government involvement in research funding.

“Politicians may point to societal challenges and finance research programs to help solving these problems, but must not be the ones that choose the research projects and dictate the direction/methods/ interpretation of results.

Rebuild trust in science

Husbekk says there must be a distance between politics and research and the roles must be clearly defined. “It is also necessary for politicians to have trust, and advocate for trust, in science. Today there is a declining trust in science which is a big challenge and threat to, for example, climate actions and democracies.”

Husebekk says the research community has to watch carefully to discover any threat to freedom and responsibility in science, of which, she says, there examples of such activity in all parts of the world.

“We are worried when Australian politicians stop projects from being funded, we are worried when politicians replace scientists from vice-chancellor positions and when politicians obviously stop research that may undermine their political directions.

“International Science Council covers many countries’ academic systems and react when something is wrong. The whole research community must react. In many countries this is seen as political opposition with the risk of punishment a displacement, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

Husebekk also welcomed the approach the Government is taking. “The recent commitment by the current government to support the establishment of an ISC presence in the Asia-Pacific region is appreciated and shows that there is new understanding of the importance of science.”

The ARC is the largest government funder of basic non-health and medical research comprising both pure basic and strategic basic research. 

The Group of Eight University submission says Higher Education expenditure on basic research has been in relative decline in Australia for the last three decades, dropping from 63.6% of total Higher Education expenditure on R&D in 1992 to 37.1% in 2020. ”Over the last decade real funding by the ARC has declined with an estimated cumulative shortfall of $1.25 billion against 2012.”

Detailed submissions from multiple institutions can be found at the foot of this Cosmos article.

Clarification: A number of minor changes have been made to this story after initial posting for clarity.

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