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Coalition opposes research funding Bill, critiquing the lack of ministerial oversight

Health Industry Hub | February 7, 2024 |

Medical: In a move to eliminate political interference and strip ministers of the power to approve competitive research grants, the proposed Australian Research Council (ARC) Amendment Bill 2023 has encountered staunch opposition from the Coalition.

The Bill, introduced in November 2023 after a comprehensive review led by Professor Margaret Sheil, aims to restore trust in the ARC, which had witnessed a “dramatic erosion” of confidence due to controversial grant decisions made by former Coalition ministers. Professor Sheil’s review, the first of its kind since the ARC’s establishment in 2001, identified at least six projects unfairly blocked by former ministers, prompting a call for increased “checks and balances” on ministerial intervention.

Paul Fletcher MP, Shadow Minister for Government Services, expressed the Coalition’s reservations in Parliament, stating, “In removing ministerial discretion over the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds on research and outsourcing these decisions to a board, the Albanese government is removing its accountability for such decisions to the parliament and ultimately to the Australian people under our democratic system of responsible government.”

Mr Fletcher added “While the new board arrangements will include First Nations representation and a representative from regional, rural and remote Australia, disappointingly, the provisions do not seek to include people with other relevant skills, such as those who are experts in public administration and governance, or who can advocate for the best use of public moneys.”

In contrast, Misha Schubert, CEO of Science & Technology Australia, voiced strong support for the Bill, with a call for minor amendments to strengthen its provisions. Ms Schubert emphasised the importance of swift decision-making in the research sector, proposing a 21-day notification period for successful grant applicants to “give crucial certainty to both researchers and industry – and avoid being stuck in limbo amid lengthy delays – which has happened all too often in the past. Careers and jobs can hinge on these decisions – and lengthy delays in the past have caused needless stress.”

Despite this, Mr Fletcher reiterated “The absence of ministerial oversight will hinder the government’s ability to ensure that research projects align with national priorities and advance our nation and our national interest. The Coalition will not be supporting this Bill.”

Labor’s 2022 election pledge to boost research expenditure to 3% of GDP remains unfulfilled as the government reaches the midway point of its term. In the December 2023-24 MYEFO, significant cuts were made, including over $102 million from research, a $46.2 million reduction in Australia’s Economic Accelerator program, and the cancellation of the Regional Research Collaboration Program, resulting in the clawback of an additional $56.3 million.

As the political debate unfolds, the scientific community is closely watching the fate of the Bill, which holds the promise of reshaping the governance and decision-making processes within the ARC.

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