The research council responsible for administering university grants has admitted it's been collecting sensitivity files on academics based on media reports along with information provided by intelligence agencies.
Officials from the Australian Research Council told an estimates hearing it has been collecting sensitivity files on academics within Australia for years, including information provided in media reports.
Council chief executive Professor Sue Thomas told Labor senator Kim Carr it had been regular practice for some time to ensure research grants were not issued to academics who pose a threat to national security.
"We scan for items in the public domain that might show newspaper items - it could be a range of things," Professor Thomas said on Friday morning.
"We've also been working with security agencies to inform the sorts of scans that we do so, bits of information are provided by the security agencies."
Branch manager Kylie Emery said the media reports were used in conjunction with a number of other sources in order to check whether there were potential sensitivities related to the individual or institution.
Ms Emery outlined checking with DFAT's sanctions regime list and defence policy think tank ASPI's China Defence Universities Tracker as tools to assist with the process of identifying possible red flags.
"We are the experts on academic excellence, Senator, we are not the experts on national security issues," Ms Emery said.
Senator Carr pointed to reporting by The Australian that revealed the names of academics linked to the Thousand Talents Plan, which it alleged was a secretive research program conducted by the Chinese government and ultimately a risk to national security.
When asked about whether the research council's sensitivity process impinged on the privacy of academics engaged in the grants application process, Professor Thomas said the council was rethinking how it undertook its approach.
"We all want research ... to be seen as an endeavour with integrity," Professor Thomas said.
"We're always mindful of people's privacy.
"[We've been] thinking about what high level reporting we might be able to devise into the future, which does give the public an understanding that [national security] issues have been looked into, that they've been investigated, and that they have been closed."
It comes as the council revealed earlier this year five research grants had been refused on the basis of national security.
In March, a committee heard 18 research grants had been referred to the Department of Home Affairs by then-education minister Dan Tehan, with five being recommended for rejection, including two from the Australian National University.
The university's vice-chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, said the education provider had conducted their own review on the two grants and found one failed its own assessment while the other would not have.
"We [assess grants] at the beginning of that process now [and] those assessments revealed to us that one of the grants would have failed our processes," he said in March.
"The other grant, we would have asked for more information, but we believe would not have failed our processes and we do not have any indication why it failed, or that it should have failed."
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