The Australian government has been accused of politicising research grants through its timing of funding announcements.
Recent project announcements include funding project for the development of materials to resist hailstorms (which has been given £282,000) and a project to detect moisture in plant life to combat forest fires (which was granted almost £275,000).
The funding for the development of technology to “accurately assess the performance of aluminium cladding, glass facades and skylights under severe hailstorm events” was announced four days after hailstorms battered Canberra and Sydney on 20 January, by Education Minister Dan Tehan.
Mr Tehan announced on 12 January, the grant for Western Sydney University to develop a model that predicts the moisture content of forest vegetation. He said that the research would aid saving lives and properties by implementing better bushfire prevention and mitigation.
The timing of the research announcements has led to the Australian government being accused of releasing information about research initiatives at politically advantageous times.
This undermines the independence of the research grant award process, one researcher told Times Higher Education (THE).
“They look for an opportunity to release a batch of grants where they can make a bit of hay because of current events,” said continued the researcher, who THE said asked not to be named. “It’s bringing the decisions into the political realm.”
The Education Minister has emphasised that the hailstorm research is part of one of the 18 new projects funded by the Linkage Projects scheme, whilst the research into vegetation moisture was one of 20 funded under another Linkage Projects round.
Australian Research Council has published a grants calendar which monitors the scheme. The calendar presents how recipients applied for the money last May or June and had been privately informed of their success on 18 November.
They look for an opportunity to release a batch of grants where they can make a bit of hay because of current events
– Dan Tehran
Fires in the past few months in Australia have covered the space of the combined counties of Denmark and Belgium, as well as claiming the lives of 28 people and half a billion animals.
Many have cited climate change as a reason for the increase of the devastation of the fires, with temperatures in Australia having reached heights of around 40 degrees in December 2019.
Criticism has also been lodged towards the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morison, for his response to the fires.
Asked about the timing of the research announcements, Mr Tehan told THE: “I will continue to work with the ARC to ensure that grant outcomes are announced as soon as possible and to highlight to the Australian taxpayer how the government is spending their tax dollars in this very important area.”