8 June 2021

Australian Research Council admits keeping 'sensitivity' files on ANU and other academics

| Genevieve Jacobs
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ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt. Photo: File.

Concerns about the integrity of the research council that administers university grants have emerged after Senate estimate hearings last week were told the Australian Research Council has been collecting ‘sensitivity files’ on academics.

The process has included some academics from the Australian National University (ANU).

The Australian Research Council files are based on media reports and information provided by intelligence agencies. In March 2021, a parliamentary committee heard that five research grants had been rejected from 18 referred to the Department of Home Affairs. This tally included two from the ANU and one from the University of Technology Sydney.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt said at the time university internal reviews on the two grants had found one failed its own assessment, while the other would not have done so.

No reason for either rejection was given by the council and Professor Schmidt said the university did not have “any indication why [the second grant application] failed, or that it should have failed”.

It has now been revealed the Australian Research Council has been collecting files on academics within Australia for several years. Its chief executive, Professor Sue Thomas, told the hearing the intention was to ensure research grants weren’t issued to academics who may pose a threat to national security.

The revelation has prompted accusations of McCarthyism from Labor senator Kim Carr, who told the Australian Financial Review “there is an acute danger of … undermining the integrity of the Australian research system that can destroy individuals careers through smear and innuendo”.

Professor Thomas said the council scans for items in the public domain and collaborated with security agencies to assemble a picture of the academics in question.

The council checks for sensitivities associated with both the academics and their tertiary institutions, using the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s sanctions regime list and a tracker developed by Canberra-based defence policy think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Academics linked to the Thousand Talents Plan, allegedly a Chinese government research program, have in the past been named, with the inference they may be a security risk.

But Senator Carr said that being involved with the plan is not illegal in Australia and 30 of the 32 researchers whose names were publicised had been cleared of any adverse findings.

“The university is only told there are sensitivities and that the grants have been vetoed as a consequence,” he said.

Professor Thomas said the council is mindful of privacy considerations and wanted all research to be seen as “an endeavour with integrity”.

She also signalled that the council is seeking ways to create higher level reporting that would disclose where issues have been investigated and closed.

The Australian Research Council receives upwards of 6000 grant applications each year, collectively involving more than 10,000 researchers from tertiary institutions across Australia.

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And people think the “thought police” is a conspiracy theory. Here we have an admission that intelligence agencies keep tabs on pretty much just that.

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