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Transparency for the Australian Research Council

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 29 November 2005

It is good to see that Professor Stuart Macintyre has come to see the light regarding the secrecy that surrounds the awarding of research grants by the Australian Research Council (ARC). In a recent article in The Age (November 16, 2005) he wrote that “the exercise of power without accountability is unacceptable” and that “those making decisions are required to justify their decisions”.

But wait, it appears that Macintyre was not referring to the expert panels that make the recommendations on which grants are made, one of which he was formerly a chair. No, he was referring the Minister of Education, Dr Nelson and the committee established by Dr Nelson to vet applications.

He complains that this committee meets in secrecy and applies “mysterious criteria”. Hey, doesn’t this sound like the ARC and its “expert panels”. A few years ago I wrote to the ARC asking for the guidelines that its expert panels were meant to follow when deciding who got the grants. Needless to say I did not receive the documents. It would be too much for the ARC to reveal anything about how it actually arrives at its decisions. It might even make it possible for someone to lodge an appeal because proper procedures had not been followed.


Macintyre also complains that Dr Nelson and his committee are prejudiced, unelected and unaccountable. This sounds to me like a great description of the members of the various members of the expert committees. To whom are they accountable, who scrutinises their decisions?

But of course I’m missing the point. If you have academic experts making decisions then we know that we can trust them. They have no hidden agendas. They don’t play political games. They are good guys, the trustworthy ones.

So in the Macintyre view of things, there are rules of accountability that should be applied to Dr Nelson and his committee but apparently not to the appointed academic members of the expert committees. Why should that be? Shouldn’t rules of accountability be applied to everyone?

Professor Macintyre’s other complaint is that someone who misses out on a grant doesn’t receive any information that might indicate if its exclusion was the result of the deliberations of Dr Nelson and his committee. But the ARC has never supplied any information regarding why an applicant was unsuccessful. There are many cases of glowing assessors’ reports followed by a rejection letter, leaving the unsuccessful applicants scratching their heads. And there are cases of lousy reports followed by grant success.

Professor Macintyre makes a specific plea for Mark McKenna, who was an unsuccessful applicant for an ARC fellowship this year. He describes McKenna as an “outstanding historian”. He seems to be claiming that McKenna was unsuccessful because he wanted to write a biography of Manning Clark, a topic that he would have us believe is politically incorrect and therefore unacceptable.

Now I cannot make any judgment on McKenna’s application as I have not seen it. However, I do know that McKenna has been criticised by Professor Mark Francis, a Canadian at the University of Canterbury and hence not someone with an axe to grind, in the prestigious History of Political Thought. And the criticism: that McKenna’s history of Australian republicanism was more concerned with contemporary politics than with establishing the truth about the past. In fact, McKenna is well known as one of the leading ideologues of the Australian Republican Movement. Perhaps Professor Macintyre believes that that sort of political advocacy is the mark of an “outstanding historian.”


In any case my understanding is that projects have been rejected because of what might be termed the “silliness” factor. They do not look like serious pieces of research. There can be no doubt that a biography of Manning Clark is a serious enterprise, regardless of who undertakes it.

Maybe I am just being churlish and should welcome Professor Macintyre on board as an ally who wants to open up for public scrutiny the whole process of the awarding of research grants by the ARC. But it must be the whole process, including the ARC and its expert panels, that has to be open to the gaze of the public. Only then will some confidence be restored to that process.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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