Australia's education minister has walked away from an election commitment to audit “ridiculous” grants by the Australian Research Council and reassign their funding, amid warnings about the politicization of research grants.
The coalition government courted a fierce backlash from researchers after it threatened to cut funding to what an official called “completely over-the-top” research projects in areas such as Hegelian philosophy, interpretations of Islamic law, and the adaptation of urban art to climate change.
“Taxpayer dollars have been wasted on projects that do little, if anything, to advance Australians’ research needs,” said Jamie Briggs, then chairman of the Coalition’s scrutiny of government waste committee, two days before the election.
“A Coalition government, if elected, will crack down on Labor’s addiction to waste by auditing increasingly ridiculous research grants and reprioritizing funding through the Australian Research Council to deliver funds where they’re really needed.”
The research council last year awarded millions in grants to projects unlikely to have met the Abbott opposition’s criteria. They included a $321,380 Sydney University study of author Samuel Beckett’s influence in French literature and a $114,400 Monash University study of the idea that 16th- and 17th-century gardens were “complex cultural constructions capable of eliciting a wide range of responses.” In 2013, also under the Coalition, the ARC funded a $327,840 University of Queensland study of philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s place in secular thought and gave $373,300 to the University of Adelaide to analyze the emotional lives of the Scottish lower classes between 1661 and 1830.
Over all, the gulf between science and humanities funding has widened. Humanities got 27.3 percent of research funding in 2007 -- the last year of the Howard government -- and only 21.1 percent in 2013, according to ARC figures obtained by The Weekend Australian.
Asked about the pre-election pledge, a spokesman for the education minister, Christopher Pyne, said: “The Australian Research Council is an independent body and makes recommendations to the Minister.
“They conduct an extremely comprehensive review process looking at thousands of grant applications. At no point has the minister sought to intervene in this process.”
He said the government had boosted funding to diabetes, dementia and tropical research as promised.
Science and Technology Australia, the science and technology advocacy group, last year said governments should set priorities for taxpayer-funded research, but “priority setting is very different from political picking and choosing.”
“Only a quarter of research-grant bids that go to the ARC each year are successful,” the group's chief executive, Catriona Jackson, told The Weekend Australian.
“Only the best of the very best get through the very careful peer-review, expert-driven process,” she said.
In 2004 and 2005, Howard government education minister Brendan Nelson vetoed several projects and appointed outsiders, including former Quadrant magazine editor Paddy McGuinness, to vet grant applications.
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