The federal government has backtracked and funded four of the 11 Australian Research Council grant applications that were secretly vetoed by Simon Birmingham as education minister in 2017 and last year.
The 2019 ARC discovery grants, announced by incumbent Education Minister Dan Tehan last week, include three projects at the University of NSW, Monash University and the University of Sydney that had been rejected earlier by Senator Birmingham.
A fourth vetoed grant, an $802,750 Future Fellowship to Macquarie University music and birdsong specialist Hollis Taylor, was quietly approved by Mr Tehan in October.
In his latest announcement Mr Tehan acknowledged that applications that previously were vetoed by Senator Birmingham had now been approved. He said the projects were now “markedly different”.
“The public accountability of these projects have been improved by the application of the national interest test which uses plain English to explain the value of research to the country,” Mr Tehan said in a statement.
Among the projects now approved is one that Senator Birmingham mocked in a tweet last year, following the revelation that he secretly had rejected the 11 arts and humanities projects worth more than $4m after they had been approved by the exhaustive ARC selection processes.
“I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post-Orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’,” tweeted Senator Birmingham, who is now Trade Minister.
The now approved $220,000 project, by University of Sydney art history professor Roger Benjamin and his colleague Emma Kindred, will research the art inspired by Orientalist travellers to southern Spain and northern Africa. Artists include Delacroix and Matisse.
Professor Benjamin said his successful grant proposal had a simplified title compared with the earlier rejected one, and some international
collaborations were axed, but “the intellectual rationale and program of research work was very similar”.
The application’s increased emphasis on a tie-in with the National Gallery of Australia (including collaboration with an NGA curator) might have helped illustrate the “national interest” of the project, a recently introduced requirement for ARC grants, Professor Benjamin added.
He said he believed the ARC had suffered considerable reputational damage from the saga. “The grant has gone a good way towards restoring my faith in the Australian research grants process,” he added.
The other two restored discovery grants are: $140,128 to UNSW’s Louise Edwards for a project titled Beauty, Ugliness and China’s Changing Gender Norms; and
$286,353 to Monash University’s Brett Hutchins, Elizabeth Lester and Toby Miller for their project, Sport as a Communications Platform for Environmental Issues.
Senator Birmingham’s decisions to veto the 11 research grant approvals (which were kept secret at the time) were revealed by Labor senator Kim Carr in Senate estimates hearings late last year, when he questioned ARC chief executive Sue Thomas.
Macquarie University’s Dr Taylor said her project, The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music, was “essentially the same” in her successful application as it was in the earlier one vetoed by Senator Birmingham. She said it was “only tweaked in a minor way”.
“The secret veto, when I discovered it via Senator Carr’s hearing before the Senate estimates committee, gutted me to my core,” she said, adding that it had taken her months of long, hard work to write the applications.
“Secrecy gets us nowhere,” she said. “Mine is a straightforward international collaboration on birdsong with five world-class scientists, not espionage.”
In response, Senator Birmingham on Tuesday repeated a statement he made last year saying he made no apologies for “ensuring that taxpayer research dollars weren’t spent on projects that Australians would rightly view as being entirely the wrong priorities.”