The upcoming Australian election is an opportunity for researchers to press all parties to reinstate the independence of research funding.
Government funding of scientific research walks a careful line between two extremes: one in which governments micromanage what gets funded down to the level of individual research projects, and another in which governments have no control over how public research monies are spent.
If you were told it was a country where politicians can overturn a peer review decision by a panel of scientific experts, perhaps you might think I was talking of a developing nation with a tinpot dictator. Or perhaps you might think I was referring to the United States where polarised decision making has made every decision political. No in fact I’m referring to Australia where politicians can overturn a peer review decision they do not like. They not only have such power they have been using it. This piece in Nature calls for a change in the law. Science needs the freedom to pursue the topics the powerful find unpalatable. Hopefully, the change in government will see this fixed.
But not so in Australia, where the government has legal powers, under the Australian Research Council Act 2001, to override some of the council’s project funding decisions. There are now less than three weeks before voters go to the polls to elect a new federal government. In that time, scientists need to step up demands for all political parties to commit to changing this law so that researchers can operate without the looming threat of ministerial interference.
On four occasions since the Australian Research Council (ARC) was established in 2001 — three of them in the past five years — a government minister has intervened to veto a small number of ARC grants for individual research projects. These are projects that had been recommended for funding by independent committees of experts in the fields concerned.