Australian researchers have accused the Coalition government of delaying the announcement of grants for political advantage.
With the government under siege over its alleged misuse of taxpayer-funded grants to buttress its political chances in the lead-up to the 2019 election, universities and industry groups say changes to the way Australian Research Council research grants were announced last year was also politically motivated.
Before, successful Australian Research Council grants were all posted online at once. But since last October, researchers have had to comply with embargoes of up to a month until their grants are formally announced by Education Minister Dan Tehan, often through a joint press release with a Coalition government MP.
In one case, Liberal MP for the seat of Higgins Dr Katie Allen was quoted in a press release announcing a $4 million research centre to develop next generation medical implants at the University of Melbourne. While Dr Allen is a former medical researcher, the university is actually in Greens leader Adam Bandt's electorate.
The International Australian Studies Association told a parliamentary inquiry the staggering of grant announcements, with the minister or member of parliament announcing them, "suggests that some political advantage was sought in this process".
Universities Australia also said the practice of allowing the minister and government members and senators to announce grants progressively was "a significant departure from historical practice, and arguably contributes neither to the effectiveness, nor the efficiency, of the administration of the program".
"In fact, it poses a significant logistical challenge to universities in satisfying the dual requirements of maintaining an embargo on grant outcomes whilst pursuing activities in relation to the operation of the grant," the group said.
Australian Technology Network of Universities - which is the peak body for University of Technology Sydney, Curtin University, RMIT University and the University of South Australia - said while it supported the promotion of grants, announcements should be made to published schedules.
This would allow universities to begin undertaking "necessary work" such as recruiting and appointing staff and purchasing and leasing equipment.
However the Australian Research Council rejected those criticisms, when appearing before the Public Accounts Committee on Friday.
"It's not that they aren't able to do anything, they are able to start the project, start their research, that recruitment," the Australian Research Council's Kylie Emery said.
Asked if further changes would be considered due to the concern of the sector, Australian Research Council chief executive Professor Sue Thomas said that was a matter for the minister.
The Coalition has previously come under fire over research grants in 2017, when then then Education Minister Simon Birmingham vetoed 11 ARC grants, all in the humanities, social sciences and creative arts areas.
Before then, ministerial veto had only been applied once - in 2005, also to a humanities, social sciences and creative arts grant.
Four of the vetoed grants were later given funding in the 2018 round, while at least five were successful in the 2019 round.
The International Australian Studies Association said this proved the vetoes were unnecessary and about politics rather than effective administration.
"This political decision, while not unprecedented, eroded trust in the ARC process both within Australia and internationally by bringing the impartiality of the grant scheme into doubt," the association said.
The association also believed the ministerial vetoes had damaged Australia's international reputation in the research and higher education sector.
It meant the country lost researchers to overseas institutions. At least one researcher whose project was vetoed moved to Europe.
"No comparable international grants body has ever had grants vetoed by a minister," the association said.