Political interference in peer review process starts a slippery slope to disaster

31 Oct 2018

The Australian, 31 October 2018. When politicians insert themselves into the nation’s research peer review process, they not only break convention almost as ­sacred as the separation of powers, they trash Australia’s research capability and its university sector in the eyes of the world, with the stroke of an ideological pen.

Australia now knows, much after the fact and only because a late-night question to a Senate ­estimates committee shone light into the dark recesses of the decision-making processes of former federal education minister Simon Birmingham, that insert himself he most certainly did.

Probably for many in the Australian community, Birmingham’s decision to overrule Australia’s pre-eminent research body, the Australian Research Council, sounds distant and rather esoteric.

But his refusal to sanction $4 million in ­research grants already peer ­reviewed as worthy of those grants, with no justification for the rejection, is an unconscionable and reprehensible act.

It sends ripples for Australia’s future way beyond research.

It is a portent of ideological interference in Australia’s ministerial decision-making process that cannot be ­allowed to go unchallenged.

If it happens so blithely with something as internationally ­re­spected as the research peer ­review process, it can happen across any area government does not agree with or see value in.

Each slippery slope has one first step.

In research around the world, the research peer review process, which is rigorous and highly competitive, is considered sacrosanct. Only the best of the very best “wins” access to research grants, whether science or humanities.

In Britain, the Haldane principle to protect the peer review process is enforced.

In December 2010, universities and science minister David Willetts, in discussing the Haldane principle, told the House of Commons “there are areas where ministers should have no input: ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded nor which researchers should receive the money. This has been the key to the international success of British science.”

It is indeed the key to the international success of the science from all our competitor nations.

It is a success we share, a success where we as a nation, and we as universities, punch well above our weight. It is a success we cannot ­afford to have other nations see as slipping away via ideological ­attack.

Research has no borders. Australian research is often the result of a multinational team seeking outcomes that benefit the world.

This decision will have international researchers questioning the value of working toward being part of an Australian team. Will the essential grant be forthcoming or killed off at government whim? And we lose them to safer research communities hosted by other countries.

As Monash University vice-chancellor and Group of Eight board member Margaret Gardner wrote recently in an email to Monash staff: “We have values to be defended and these are actions to be condemned.”

The Group of Eight, representing Australia’s leading research-intensive universities with seven of its members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities ­because of their research, needs answers on behalf of the Australian community, not only our own member universities.

Any future Labor government must take a more balanced view of how it manages democratic government. It is hoped that Labor’s espoused strong commitment to education and research leads it to formalise, in advance of the forthcoming election, the equivalent of Britain’s Haldane principle.

When he had responsibility for science in the previous Labor government, Kim Carr was strong on this and had his own such principle drafted.

The present government did not consider it worthy. But it is.

The minister did have the power to reject the proposals but in doing so he broke with a longstanding convention that has upheld the sanctity of the peer ­review process.

At the very least, the decision-making process needs to be transparent and explained.

If the advice of the ARC was not accepted by the former education minister, then whose advice was he taking and what were the reasons behind the rejections of these projects that were not apparent to the ARC ­expert panels?

Until those questions are ­answered, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the rejections were based on populist politics and little else.

And a final point. Birmingham used the research single-sentence descriptors as justification that taxpayers’ money would be better spent elsewhere.

There was once a strange-sounding piece of research into what factors led to the fall of ­ancient Angkor in the 15th century. As such, it is probable that piece of research would have been rejected under the former minister.

Yet that seemingly obscure ­research by a multidisciplinary team at the University of Sydney found results that are a warning to modern cities.

In short, the demise of Angkor can be shown to have been driven by ill-management of water systems and infrastructure during a period of climate stress.

Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight universities.