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Simon Birmingham’s intervention in research funding is not unprecedented, but dangerous

Jon Piccini and Dirk Moses write in The Conversation (26.10.18) about former education minister Simon Birmingham’s worrying, but not unprecedented, personal intervention into a number of research funding decisions by the Australian Research Council.

‘Senator Simon Birmingham’s personal intervention during his time as education minister in 2017 and 2018 to deny funding to 11 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants, all in the humanities and worth a combined total of A$4.2 million, has sparked outrage.

‘Revealed in Senate estimates on Thursday, the vetoed projects included $926,372 for a La Trobe University project titled “Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity”, $764,744 for a Macquarie University project on “the music of nature and the nature of music”, and $391,574 for an ANU project called “Price, metals and materials in the global exchange”.

‘On Friday, Birmingham defended his intervention, suggesting most Australian taxpayers would prefer their funding be directed to other research.

‘In a statement, Ian Jacobs, the vice chancellor and president at UNSW, from which three grants were vetoed, said “the unjustified and unexplained decision to solely deny funding for research that contributes to scholarship in arts and humanities is deeply troubling”.’

All creatures great and small: parity or esteem?

TJ Ryan Foundation Board member, Roger Scott, writes on the ‘Pearls & Irritations’ blog (17.11.18) about the federal Education Minister seeming to bestow ‘largesse’ upon ‘small tertiary institutions located in sensitive rural constituencies’.

‘It is the potential problem of increasingly derelict campuses and thus political blame-allocation which seems to lie behind the aim of throwing buckets of money in the direction of those country institutions at the bottom of the status hierarchy. Filling those buckets from the large numbers of dollars currently focussed on research and on the Group of Eight universities which are most active in this area is the root cause of concern articulated in the press.

‘And research is now seen as a political target by proclaiming a new essentially political criterion – ‘public interest’ – as a back-up to the recent ad hoc intervention by the Minister in the government’s own evaluation process. Perhaps he is assuming that the sort of people who value tertiary institutions in places like Toowoomba and Rockhampton are foot-soldiers in the culture wars and sceptical of the benefits of research. As Sir Humphrey was wont to say, that would be a courageous decision.’

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