Education Minister Jason Clare has unveiled significant changes to the Australian Research Council (ARC), ending the practice of ministers vetoing research grants. 

In a speech at the AFR Higher Education Summit, Minister Clare stressed that the ARC should no longer be manipulated as a “political plaything”.

He said such interference and delays hindered universities' ability to recruit and retain talent and harmed Australia's international standing, which negatively affected both the academic sector and businesses collaborating with universities.

The ARC, responsible for allocating approximately $850 million annually, has been marred by controversies, including the rejection of grants by three of the last four Coalition education ministers and prolonged result announcement delays.

Under the new reforms, any future minister aiming to influence grant decisions without relevant expertise will need to explain themselves to parliament.

This process may involve the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, making it more difficult to cancel projects on cultural or ideological grounds.

However, the reforms preserve the minister's right to intervene in cases concerning national security. 

In such instances, the minister must notify parliament, provide reasons for the direction, and potentially report the refusals to the security committee.

The most recent controversy arose on Christmas Eve in 2021 when Stuart Robert, acting in the role for just ten days, rejected seven grants. 

Prior to him, Dan Tehan rejected five grants in 2020, and Simon Birmingham vetoed a total of ten over two years. 

This tradition began in 2004 when then-education minister Brendan Nelson banned three grants in 2004 and another seven in 2005, resulting in the rejection of 30 peer-reviewed and ARC-approved research projects.

The reforms incorporate all ten recommendations from a review of the ARC conducted by Professor Margaret Sheil, vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology and former chief executive of the ARC. 

This review marked the first comprehensive examination of the organisation in over two decades. The recommendations encompass improvements to governance, purpose, processes, oversight, and budgeting.

The most notable recommendation involves establishing a board responsible for appointing the ARC's chief executive and approving grants. 

The government has also tentatively accepted the review's suggestion concerning the future of research evaluation, which includes discontinuing the costly and labour-intensive Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise.

Other recommendations included;

  • Removal of the Minister's veto power, except in cases of limited national security concerns.

  • Introduction of a two-step application process to reduce wasted time, effort, and opportunity costs associated with unsuccessful applications.

  • Implementation of updated assessment criteria to improve early career researchers' chances of winning grants.

  • Protection of Discovery funding as a minimum proportion of total funding.

  • Creation of Discovery Fellowships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics across all career stages.

  • Establishment of a board to enhance governance and oversight.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has welcomed Minister Clare's announcement and the government's acceptance of all ARC Review recommendations.