Federal government’s Christmas Eve veto of research projects labelled ‘McCarthyism’ | Australian politics

The Morrison government has been accused of using the cover of Christmas to politicise research funding, after a federal minister vetoed grants for six recommended projects.

Proposed research relating to climate activism and China were among the projects recommended through Australian Research Council processes but blocked by the acting education minister, Stuart Robert.

Robert has argued the projects he rejected “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest” – but the decision, announced on Christmas Eve, has drawn criticism from education figures and the federal opposition.

The vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Prof Brian Schmidt, said that in a liberal democracy it was “completely inappropriate for grants to be removed by politicians, unless the grant rules were not followed”.

The Victorian Labor senator Kim Carr said the government was using Christmas Eve to “sweep under the carpet” its “further politicisation of the ARC and research” in Australia.

Carr, a former minister for research under the Rudd and Gillard governments, tweeted: “Their McCarthyism subverts research which was recommended by the ARC.”

The winning Discovery Projects for next year were finally revealed on Friday, with a report published on the ARC website saying it had received 3,096 applications for funding commencing in 2022.

The report said 587 of those projects had been approved for funding, totalling $259m over five years.

“Of the unsuccessful applications in 2022, 51 were found not to meet eligibility requirements and six were recommended to, but not funded by the minister,” the report said.

A spokesperson for Robert said the minister had approved “98.98%” of the 593 Discovery Projects the ARC recommended, but had not accepted the following six:

  • Playing conditions: how climate shaped the Elizabethan theatre

  • National forgetting and local remembering: memory politics in modern China

  • China stories under Xi Jinping: popular narratives

  • Finding friendship in early English literature

  • Cultural production of religion by science fiction and fantasy novels

  • New possibilities: student climate action and democratic renewal

Robert’s spokesperson said the minister “believes those rejected do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.

“After going through a peer review process, it is clear to the minister the application of the national interest test is not working in every case,” the spokesperson said.

“This test should ensure taxpayer-funded Australian government research funding is directed to areas of national importance and delivers public value. It’s why in his letter of expectation the minister asked the ARC to strengthen the test.”

In a media release, the ARC chief executive, Prof Sue Thomas, welcomed Robert’s approval of funding for 587 new projects.

“This investment will see expanded knowledge base and research capacity in Australia, and economic, commercial, environmental, social and/or cultural returns for Australia,” Thomas said.

The successful projects included ones looking at why gender inclusion efforts in Australian sport have not yet led to gender parity in leadership roles; ways to advance economic opportunities for Indigenous communities across northern Australia; and better planning for the future capacity for public health programs.

Several China-related projects did receive funding, including one looking into “how Xi Jinping-era legal ideology guides policy and decision-making in China”.

Another successful project will investigate how the international expansion of China’s belt and road initiative is shaped by cultural factors alongside economic and political diplomacy. The cleantech transition in China and Australia will also be studied.

The opposition’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, wrote to the auditor general earlier this week asking for an audit into why it was taking the government so long to announce next year’s funding recipients.

In the letter on Monday, Plibersek said the “unacceptable” delays were causing uncertainty for thousands of Australian researchers “who don’t know whether they’ll have a job next year or whether their projects will have funding”.

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