The Politics of Climate Change Research Funding

Readers may remember that back in November, Queensland Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald caused some consternation when he characterised the ‘appalling’ situation of too much research funding being devoted to climate change! Explicit in the Senator’s statement was an argument that competitive grants had been subject to political influence under the former Federal Labor Government. As Senator Macdonald stated:

I also know that a number of scientists—and I have had personal interaction with some of them—who wanted to do research that did not follow the then government’s view of climate change would never ever get a grant from the Australian Research Council. That seemed to me, if that were the case—and I accept what was told to me—that the Research Council was actually following a dictum from the then government about climate change and climate change research.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the Senator’s claims that ‘unless you indicated in your application for a research grant that you were doing something with climate change then you were unlikely to get a grant’ are factually incorrect. Analysis of the funding outcomes data demonstrates that less than 4% of successful Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery grants addressed the issue of climate change over the period 2002-2013 (the high point being 2010 when 7.4% of successful grants had a climate change focus, dropping to just 2.9% in the latest Discovery round).

Beyond the numbers, Senator Macdonald’s claim of political interference over climate change research was also rebutted in the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment on 20th November 2013, when Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and Labor Senator Kim Carr questioned ARC CEO Professor Aiden Byrne. Professor Byrne emphasised that the independence and rigour of the grant assessment process was not swayed by particular disciplinary or subject criteria. Indeed, in response to a question from Senator Carr, Professor Byrne emphasised that there was no evidence to support Senator Macdonald’s claims:

No, there is not any evidence to support that view. It is a given, almost a universal truth, that no discipline area thinks they get a fair share of ARC funding. Every researcher in this country thinks they have been hard-done by by the ARC. That probably means it is a fair system.

In follow up questions, Senators Rhiannon and Carr raised the issue of former conservative Education Minister Brendan Nelson’s controversial decision in 2004 and 2005 to reject ARC recommended Discovery applications that were politically inconvenient. Here Professor Byrne noted that there had (to date) been no change to previous funding rules and that under the relevant Act if the Minister gave the ARC a direction (for instance to reject a recommended grant application), that direction would have to be published.

While the evidence for past political interference into research funding on climate change is clearly lacking, this does not mean it won’t become apparent in the future. Given the Government has recently announced significant changes to research funding, and we are still waiting for the funding rules for the next round of ARC Discovery applications to be made public (applications need to be submitted in the next couple of months!), it will be interesting to see what these changes will involve, and whether the ARC will retain its role as an independent arbiter of research excellence, particularly in the politically sensitive area of climate change.

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