Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2024


Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023; Second Reading

12:43 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023. The Greens have been pushing for this change, to get rid of ministerial intervention into ARC grant applications, ever since I came into the Senate five years ago. Because an independent, well funded, robust research sector is essential. This bill is a welcome step in a move towards a more independent ARC. The Greens will be supporting the bill and attempting to improve it. As a former researcher and academic, ensuring a thriving, publicly well-funded research community free from political interference is close to my heart and something I have long worked on.

We know that research independence and academic freedom are critical to our collective public good and to a thriving democratic culture, yet far too often in recent decades we have seen that independence and freedom undermined for political reasons or the juvenile hatred of the arts and the social sciences, as was the case with the coalition government. Some may not remember that the ARC was previously governed by a board when it was set up in 2001 as an independent statutory body. Yet in 2006 the coalition government abolished the ARC board, a move that undermined research in this country. There is no other way to describe it. At the time, the NTEU rightly emphasised the importance of the ARC board as a buffer against the political whims of the government of the day—the exact opposite of what the coalition, the opposition, is trying to tell us today.

Since the board was dismantled, researchers have continued to raise deep concerns about political interference, which has become an increasing reality over the years. We know that, on at least six occasions, at least four ministers have intervened and rejected over 30 research proposals. All four of those ministers have been Liberal ministers. So it's no wonder there is a lot of huffing and puffing going on on that side of the chamber today as this avenue for ministerial intervention is finally removed. These proposals are recommended for funding by the ARC following a rigorous and expert peer review process, and that's the way it should be. It is ridiculous that politicians with next to no research expertise have been making captain's calls about the value of research in total contradiction to the ARC's extensive and expert processes of peer review. How dangerous and damaging for our research and our research community!

I introduced a bill in 2018 to remove the ministerial veto over ARC grant approvals to bring an end to this destructive practice. This was one of my first bills in the Senate, because ensuring our research remains untainted by political ideology and influence is a cause that holds deep significance for me. I said it then, and I'll say it again, because it's just as true now: no minister should be able to dictate which research projects are funded and which ones are not. The true test of academic freedom is that it must be free from political interference, no matter who is in government. It should be based on an independent and rigorous assessment process. We need to trust our peer review processes. Researchers work incredibly hard applying for an ARC grant, but overall success rates still remain below 18 per cent, and that surely calls for more research funding. Academics deserve to be supported in pursuing research with independence and freedom and without fear that their work might be stopped or curtailed by the government of the day for political reasons.

For years, researchers have continued to raise the alarm. So frustrated have some in the research community been that members of the ARC's own college of experts have resigned in protest of the ministerial veto power. In 2022, the presidents of Australia's five learned academies together stated:

When the integrity of Australia's research system is compromised by perceived, or actual, political interference, there are real costs to the research sector and indeed the nation—as trust is eroded and the relationships researchers have with industry, the Australian community, and international partners are damaged.

In the 2022 Senate inquiry on my bill, more than 85 per cent of the 80 submissions supported the removal of the veto power. During that historic inquiry, researchers and academic groups raised deep concerns that the ministerial veto power was damaging academic freedom and having a chilling effect and causing self-censorship in the research community. Stakeholders told us that political interference disproportionately impacted First Nations researchers and threatened the integrity of the peer review process, and many high-profile researchers and academics raised serious concerns that political interference undermined Australia's international research reputation.

While Labor and the coalition failed to support my bill, despite overwhelming support for this much needed reform, my work and the work of the research community secured a unanimous recommendation out of the bill inquiry for an independent review of the ARC. This became the first comprehensive review of the ARC in over 20 years, since the introduction of the ARC Act in 2001. And I am very proud of my team and so many in the research community that I worked alongside to secure recommendations from this review to end ministerial veto power, which is what this bill implements today.

After rejecting my bill in 2018, it is welcome to see that Labor has finally accepted the need for the ARC to be given autonomy to make decisions over research grants. I welcome the establishment of an ARC board that will have responsibility for deciding whether to fund the bulk of the research projects. Peer review and research experts should make decisions on research funding, not politicians. And I congratulate the research community who have pushed long and hard for this change. This is a big win for everyone who has worked to end political and ideological interference in research, and it has been a privilege to work with so many of them.

This bill also makes headway in transparency of the minister's role in funding decisions by requiring publications of any directions that the minister gives to the ARC. Back in September 2022, my order for the production of documents revealed that ministerial direction had led to revisions to the national interest test statement in more than 60 per cent of the applications, affecting applications in the Discovery Indigenous 2023 scheme at nearly three times the average rate. The changes made by this bill will give us greater insight into decision-making of the ARC and will, again, hopefully lead to less political interference. The ARC review and this bill are an opportunity to get things right, once and for all, and for that we do need some improvements in the bill. I will be moving committee-of-the-whole amendments to make this bill stronger, and we have negotiated agreement with the minister's office on some of these amendments.

On matters of political interference, the ARC review recommended the minister retain a veto power on ARC research funding for reasons of national security, but unfortunately this bill goes a bit further. This bill empowers the minister to not approve and to terminate research funding for reasons related to the international relations of Australia. The Greens and many in the research community are concerned that this could provide the minister a much wider discretion to intervene in decisions of research funding. These concerns are shared by the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and others. The breadth of the international relations power is particularly concerning because, in determining whether to veto research funding for international relations reasons, the bill explicitly notes that the minister may regard any matter they consider appropriate. We think this is too broad a discretion and it presents a risk because this bill makes it an object of the ARC to include supporting Australian universities to conduct research and collaboration with international partners, so this could become a hinderance to that collaboration. The Greens want to narrow this ministerial discretion, and we will be moving an amendment to that effect.

The bill also empowers the minister to specify in regulations new designated research programs under which the funding for individual research projects is decided solely by the minister and not by the ARC board. While these regulations would be disallowable, concerns have been raised with me that this risks the minister taking sole decision-making power over a wide range of funding decisions on individual grants. These concerns have been expressed by universities, by university peak bodies and by researchers. Research funding should be decided through a rigorous peer review process and research expertise, not by the minister of the day. I will be making some amendments to make sure that this very broad decision-making power at least is not without greater oversight.

There are also concerns about political interference and delays in relation to whether funding rules are disallowable. The current situation is that ARC funding rules, also known as grant guidelines, are prepared by the ARC and approved by the minister. The funding rules are tabled in parliament but are not disallowable. This bill would change that and make funding rules disallowable. Many are concerned that this introduces a new form of political intervention and risks delays to research funding. To avoid the risk of delays, I will be moving an amendment to retain the current situation where funding rules are not subject to disallowance.

Ending political interference in the ARC is key to a thriving and independent research sector, but so is sufficient funding, which the government has so far failed to address in response to the ARC review and also in the Universities Accord. Research funding in Australia is abysmally low compared to other OECD nations, with both Labor and coalition governments having failed to fund vital, fundamental research. Australian research has so much potential, but this will never be fulfilled without substantial and sustainable long-term public funding. As many universities and researchers have urged, the government must significantly increase overall research funding and ensure that the cost of implementing this bill does not reduce existing research funding. University funding is so vital if we are to solve the complex and wicked problems of the climate crisis, inequality, global justice and health emergencies—among many others.

We must also urgently address the job insecurity, precarious work and casualisation which are rampant in universities, but are also rife across the research sector. We cannot allow our universities to continue operating off the exploitation of staff. Only one in four researchers are employed on a continuing basis. It is worse for women, with only one in five women employed on an ongoing basis. A whopping 80 per cent of researchers are on fixed term contracts of less than three years in length, and a third of the workforce has been on rolling fixed term contracts for over six years. In addition, PhD stipends sit below the poverty line, pushing students to the brink in a cost-of-living crisis. Researchers deserve secure, well-paid jobs, and PhD students should have a generous, liveable research stipend and full entitlement to paid parental leave. While addressing job security requires a whole-of-sector approach, the ARC are one of the largest funders of research and they must play a role in this. We will be moving an amendment so the ARC supports ongoing jobs.

Lastly, decision-making bodies in higher education should be democratically elected and diverse, including the ARC. The Greens welcome the bill's initiative to help ensure the ARC board reflects underrepresented groups. It is particularly important that the bill requires a First Nations person to be on the board at all times. We would like to strengthen the minister's obligation to ensure a diverse board and increase the size of the board so its membership can be more diverse.

For far too long the research sector has been plagued by political interference, underfunding and job insecurity. This bill is a welcome step to address some of these issues, but there is still work to do. The Greens and I will continue to work to ensure more public funding for an expanding and thriving research sector with diverse and democratic governance where researchers have academic freedom, secure jobs and fair pay.


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