House debates

Monday, 25 November 2019

Bills

Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading

7:15 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

As the member for Hotham and other speakers before me have mentioned, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019 is a non-controversial bill which really is only about amending the Australian Research Council Act to apply indexation to the existing appropriation amounts for approved research programs in the forthcoming financial years. The amendment that we have moved to that bill mentions that, whilst we welcome a second reading of the bill, the House also notes that the government has cut research funding, interfered in independent peer-reviewed grant processes and abandoned nation-building investment in education and research infrastructure. While this is a very uncontroversial bill, I take this opportunity, as did the member for Hotham, to talk about research, talk about the ARC and talk about higher education.

I'm no stranger to any of those processes. As a professor and academic, I had or was part of four ARC grants. The first Australian Research Council grant that I was involved in was actually for my PhD. That was a discovery grant where the findings of my research informed Australia's first metric measuring behavioural responses to the fear of terrorism. A few years later I was successful in getting an early career research grant, which looked at—gosh, I don't know if I can remember what it looked at! Actually, I do remember: it looked at victims of terrorism and their contributions to policymaking on counterterrorism. In that period I was also involved in a linkage grant that involved several universities. We developed supercomputer software to look at scraping so that I could analyse trends in online terrorism. Then, just before I entered parliament, I was successful in a second discovery grant, which was a collaboration with a university in Dublin and the University of Haifa to look at the nature of terrorist propaganda influence.

So I'm no stranger to ARC grants and I can tell you with absolute surety that the process that an individual researcher goes through to get an ARC grant is a gruelling one. It often involves many years of preparation. It involves many years of undertaking things like pilot studies, building up your reputation as a researcher and building up your publications in your particular field just to get a look in to get an ARC grant. When I was an academic, they introduced the ARC early career researcher grants because the discovery grants had such a low success rate, and many of us who had had our PhDs for fewer than eight years—what were called early- and mid-career researchers—were just not competitive in getting discovery grants. So they introduced the early career research grants.

Even the early career research grants of the ARC are very gruelling in their process. It is an extremely rigorous process. The application for a research grant, whether it's a discovery, linkage or early career grant, takes you at least a year to develop. You have to develop your project. You have to have written about your project and had that published, often in some of the high-ranking journals. You have to show how your research has a benefit to the research community, a national benefit and an international benefit. It is no easy task.

But, what we've seen is an unprecedented case where the previous minister used his ministerial veto to restrict funding for research that doesn't support his particular world view. What we have seen is unprecedented political interference in an independent, peer-reviewed grant process. Absolutely, it is a shame, because, as I said, nobody can assess the value of a piece of research except experts in that field. For a minister to think that he or she has the skills, the knowledge or the experience to make an informed decision about which research projects go through and which don't is a slap in the face to every single person who has put their blood, sweat and tears into getting a PhD and into becoming an academic and going down that path of contributing to Australia's research knowledge and our research capability.

When you apply for an ARC grant, you have to put in a particular code, and that code determines which panel of experts—can I just repeat: panel of experts—will assess your application. That code is necessary for that panel of experts to assess your application, because that panel of experts are experts in the field you have selected your research to be assessed under. It's not like somebody who is a specialist in communication is assessing a research project on genomes. It's not like somebody who has a PhD and an international reputation in international relations is assessing a PhD on business in Malaysia. It's not like that. The ARC College of Experts and the panel experts are the top Australian experts in their field. So for the minister to undermine such an independent and such a rigorous process is really quite disgraceful.

The fact also needs to be stated that all of the research projects that were vetoed by the minister were in humanities and social sciences. As a social scientist, and somebody with a humanities background, I find that particularly disturbing. They were across a range of fields in the humanities—history, the arts, music and journalism. It was as if those fields could easily be judged on their worth and on the amount and the level of knowledge that they add to Australia's research capabilities by a minister, who—correct me if I'm wrong, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough—I'm pretty sure has no background in history, the arts, music or journalism.

The other issue is how we found out about this. Senate estimates was told in October 2018 that 11 grants totalling $4.2 million were secretly vetoed by the then education minister in 2017 and 2018. There were six discovery grants, three Discovery Early Career Research Awards and two Future Fellowships. I particularly think it's damning that the early career researcher awards were vetoed, because many early career researchers, or those who apply for early career research awards, are women who, for one reason or another, usually through having children, have had their academic progress and their academic careers disrupted. Until Senate estimates, the universities and the scholars had absolutely no idea that these applications had been rejected even though they had been approved by the college of experts, who are best placed to determine the worth of an ARC grant application.

Apart from this unprecedented undermining of the independence and expert process of the ARC, the government has also made three attempts to abolish the nation-building Education Investment Fund. The most recent attempt is currently before the parliament. The EIF was established in 2009 by this side, by Labor. The purpose of the EIF was to provide important capital funding for transformational education and research infrastructure which would enable Australian universities to compete internationally. We have a very good reputation in terms of education. It's important that we keep that reputation. It's important that we continue to be held up as a great example of a great place for people to come and study and get a good education. Our universities are internationally renowned, but without a commitment to research and without universities being able to do the kind of research that informs teaching and makes us competitive on the international stage, there is a real danger that we are going to lose that reputation and we will stop having students coming here from overseas to study in Australia. It's one of our biggest exports; I think it's our third-largest export. It would be a huge blow to the economy if we were to lose large numbers of international students because our research could not keep up with international trends.

The Education Investment Fund was the key plank in the Labor government's move to transform Australian education and research capability. We introduced it in 2009 to address years of underfunding and underinvestment by the coalition government during the Howard era. We doubled, or nearly doubled, the Higher Education Endowment Fund. We brought in the EIF to make substantial investment in renewal and refurbishment of universities and vocational institutions as well as major research institutions. Under Labor, around $7 billion was provided to co-finance the update and modernisation of our vocational higher education and research facilities across 71 projects.

Just before I decided to get distracted by a political career, I set up one of those research facilities at Edith Cowan University in Mount Lawley. I set up a research program and the infrastructure to look at global issues. So I know how important the funding for this kind of infrastructure is and how important it is to enable our universities to partner and have MOUs with universities overseas and to develop our international reputation and the international reputation of academics.

There was once a time when academia would have been a very attractive option for somebody to work in. You did your PhD, you got your PhD, you joined academia and you devoted your life to your subject area and to increasing knowledge and developing the skills of future generations in a specific subject area. Whether that is something like counterterrorism, whether it is medical research or whether it's in the sciences or the humanities, it's all contributing to knowledge and contributing to our knowledge pool as a nation. Increasingly, academia is becoming less of an attractive option for young people in particular. The member for Hotham mentioned one particular case, but there are many like that where young people are leaving research in droves because they can't get funding, because their ARC grants are being knocked back, vetoed by a minister who knows nothing of their particular area and who continues to undermine the experts of the ARC.

In closing, I would urge this government to really put their money where their mouth is and support research, because it's the future of our country. It's the future of Australia and our competitiveness on the international stage.

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