Peer review must remain at heart of research assessment system

26 October 2018
University of Sydney's Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence defends the principle of peer review, following revelations former Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham vetoed federal funding for 11 projects recommended by the Australian Research Council.

Former Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s overturning of recommendations for government funding by the Australian Research Council (ARC) – following a peer review process – is deeply concerning, the University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor and Principle Dr Michael Spence has stated.

Last financial year, when Minister for Education, Senator Birmingham vetoed $4.2 million in ARC funding recommendations for 11 projects in the arts and humanities, including one from the University of Sydney.

It is the first time in a decade a minister has used these powers, revealed during a Senate Estimations Committee meeting on Thursday.

“Funding recommendations by the ARC are based on a peer review process, designed to ensure academic integrity,” Dr Spence said.

“This action by Senator Birmingham must be considered political interference in this process; it is revealing only humanities projects were impacted.

“It is demoralising for academic staff who work hard to prepare their applications, sometimes for months or years – on the understanding they will be assessed by experts in their field through the rigorous process overseen by the ARC.

“Perhaps even more important is the message it sends to the world about the state of Australian research.

“Australia performs exceptionally well on the global higher education stage, with a large number of universities regularly ranged among the top 200 in the world.

“Our colleagues overseas will no doubt now be wary of collaborating with us on research grant applications to the ARC when it is clear decisions can be subject to the whim of our politicians.”

The University of Sydney Discovery Project ‘Post-Orientalist Arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’, led by Professor Roger Benjamin from the Department of Art History, had been recommended to receive $222,936 in grant funding.

“I share my disappointment with Professor Benjamin about this unacceptable outcome, and the message it sends about the state of Australian research.”

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