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Education and Employment Legislation Committee
28/10/2020
Estimates
EDUCATION, SKILLS AND EMPLOYMENT PORTFOLIO
Australian Research Council

Australian Research Council

[20:20]

CHAIR: I now call upon representatives from the Australian Research Council. Professor Thomas, would you like to make an opening statement?

Prof. Thomas : I don't, thank you.

CHAIR: Excellent. We will kick off the questioning with Senator Carr.

Senator KIM CARR: Good evening. How important is the PGPA Act in terms of your work, Professor Thomas? The full title is the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.

Prof. Thomas : As I understand it, the act outlines in broad terms our responsibilities as Commonwealth officials managing Commonwealth money.

Senator KIM CARR: And the accountability requirements that go with the spending of money? There's a specific rule within the ARC guidelines, is there not, going to matters of Commonwealth grants rules and guidelines? Is that the case?

Prof. Thomas : ARC does follow Commonwealth grant guidelines. We have, as I know you are aware, quite rigorous eligibility requirements.

Senator KIM CARR: Of course you do. I have had an opportunity to have a look over your annual reports. There is a requirement under section 19 of the PGPA Act for you to notify the finance minister if there are any problems with any of your grants. That's the case, isn't it?

Prof. Thomas : I may defer to my colleague, who is more experienced in the details of this.

Ms Emery : I don't have a copy of the act with me, so—

Senator KIM CARR: You may have to take my word for it. It's a duty to keep responsible ministers and the finance minister informed. Section 19 states:

The accountable authority of a Commonwealth entity must do the following—

and it goes through the normal provisions for any Commonwealth agency, you would agree. Of course, your annual report must detail if there is any noncompliance with the financial law. That would be equally the case, of course, for all Commonwealth agencies, and you are no different in that regard. So I have taken the opportunity to go through your annual report, and I can't see that there have been any notifications. I'm not surprised by that because I'm sure this agency would ensure that all the grants are administered properly and in accordance with the law. I also had the opportunity to go back over the Australian Research Council's administration of the National Competitive Grants Program, which is the other part of the arrangement. That was in the Auditor-General's report from 1 August 2019. Are you familiar with that report?

Prof. Thomas : Yes, Senator.

Senator KIM CARR: Would you say that it's a report that gives you a clean bill of health?

Prof. Thomas : It was a very positive report.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, it was a very positive report. In fact, I might spend a little time on it. You'll see method in my madness, in a moment, so don't be too surprised. It says here:

The ARC has mature and effective processes in place to assess grants, manage conflicts of interest and provide funding recommendations that comply with the NCGP guidelines.

The ARC's arrangements to measure the performance of the NCGP, monitor and evaluate the program and provide assurance that administering organisations comply with funding requirements are largely effective.

It says:

The ARC has established appropriate arrangements to manage actual and perceived conflicts of interest …

And:

The ARC provided the Minister for Education clear advice and funding recommendations consistent with requirements of the ARC Act, the CGRGs and the NCGP guidelines.

All of this is on page 8, for the Hansard record, if need be, and I'm happy to table this if required. I don't think I am, because no-one is disputing that this is what the Auditor-General found, in your case. It went on to say:

The ARC completed risk assessments for all guidelines developed for grants commencing in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020—

which is pretty interesting, given the report was dated 2019; nonetheless, that's what it says—

assessing each set of guidelines as 'low risk'. The ARC also sought, and received, confirmation each round from the Department of Finance and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that the assessment of 'low risk' was appropriate.

You'd agree with all that, I presume.

Prof. Thomas : I believe so.

Senator KIM CARR: You're not disputing any of these assertions?

Prof. Thomas : No.

Senator KIM CARR: It's all very good. And so on and so forth. It continues:

ANAO analysis of funded and unfunded grants found that in all cases assessors (both general and detailed) were assigned in accordance with requirements and written assessments were completed with ratings recorded against proposals …

on the various scales that we all appreciate, those of us who've had some interest in this area. You know that scale, of (a) through to (e), in terms of the way in which that's all done properly. It says:

The ARC advised that where inappropriate assessments are confirmed by the ARC, they may request an assessor to amend the assessment or, in rare circumstances, remove the assessment from the peer review process.

All this you would agree with. You had no particular problem with any of these things?

Prof. Thomas : No.

Senator KIM CARR: It goes on:

The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (PGPA Act) provides the basis for the Commonwealth’s performance framework (the framework). The framework consists of the PGPA Act, the accompanying Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Rule 2014 and guidance issued by the Department of Finance. An important element of the framework is the clear alignment of the purpose(s) to the planned outcomes of the entity, and that the performance information provided by the entity provides the Parliament and the public with information to assess the entity’s progress towards achieving their purpose(s).

Once again, it's a clean bill of health. That's quoting from page 44. That's on a question of performance and reporting. There's only one matter I'd seek your advice from. It says here:

The ARC Research Integrity Report for 1 January to 31 March 2019 noted that the ARC was monitoring 11 matters carried over from the previous quarter …

In regard to research integrity. And:

As such, of the 20 research integrity matters (new and ongoing) considered in the period, 13 matters remained active as at 31 March 2019.

I'd ask you to take notice of what they were.

Prof. Thomas : Yes, Senator.

Senator KIM CARR: On the basis of these public documents that you have released about yourselves and which have been independently verified by the Auditor-General and the finance department, suggesting that you're in compliance with the administration of the National Competitive Grants Program rules and the competitive grant and guidelines, in regard to the administration of the grants, I'm wondering why you've chosen to write to the DVCs of research asking for detailed information about a number of grants that were acquitted and you have not notified—from what I can tell, by the public record—the Auditor-General or the Department of Finance of any difficulties or breaches of the various acts and guidelines, when the grants were acquitted. Some of the references I've got here go back to grants whose completion dates—I can list them, if you like: 2017, 2018, 2015, 2018, 2016, 2017, 2017, 2017. These are grants of some longstanding. Why is it that you're writing to DVCs of research beginning on 25 August, and then in September and at other times, seeking further advice on grants that have been acquitted and not found to be wanting in any respect?

Prof. Thomas : Thank you for the question. The ARC has a standard process where it will follow up with institutions where any sort of allegation has been made against a researcher who has received ARC funding that's in the public domain. We don't attest to the truthfulness or otherwise of that allegation, but we follow up with the institution, because it's a piece of information that's out there and we want to understand the university's natural justice response when we raise that sensitivity with them. So there's no advice necessarily, because we are following up on an allegation.

Senator KIM CARR: So an allegation has to be made in public about a distinguished scholar, and you investigate it, do you?

Prof. Thomas : We contact the university. As I said, we don't attest to the truthfulness or otherwise, but if the allegations are untrue, they impugn researchers—

Senator KIM CARR: They certainly do that.

Prof. Thomas : and undermine public confidence. If they are true, they highlight a variety of issues that we want to be alert to.

Senator KIM CARR: Professor Thomas, is it your view that you're gathering this information with a view to you making a public statement in defence of the scholars?

Prof. Thomas : Our remit is about ARC grants. We want to understand—

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, you should, that's true.

Prof. Thomas : even with past grants, whether they have been acquitted in accordance with the contracts under which they were issued.

Senator KIM CARR: Okay. Have you found that any grants that have been referred to—we are talking here about a series of scurrilous articles in The Australian and The Daily Telegraph attacking some of our leading scholars—have not been acquitted in accordance with your obligations and requirements, as I've outlined this evening, to the Auditor-General and to the Department of Finance?

Prof. Thomas : I might defer to my colleague on this one, Senator.

Ms Dent : In relation to those letters and articles that you're referring to, we are following up with the institutions. We're reviewing the responses that the institutions have provided, and we're reviewing them against the requirements of our grant agreements with the institutions.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you. I want to know why you acquitted these grants—for instance, those grants that I've referred to for the University of New South Wales back in 2017, or 2016. They have already been acquitted. You are required, under your own legislation, to ensure that the contracts have been fulfilled. If they haven't been, you're obliged to take certain actions. I take it no action has been taken in some of these grants—is that the case?

Prof. Thomas : As my colleague has said, some of these matters are still ongoing.

Senator KIM CARR: These are grants that were acquitted three and four and five years ago—did you take action at the time?

Prof. Thomas : We would have taken action at the time if we were alert to any particular sensitivities.

Senator KIM CARR: Have you been alert to any action that would require you to challenge those contracts?

Prof. Thomas : I think that process is still ongoing, Senator.

Senator KIM CARR: No, you have already acquitted them. In 2015 you acquitted grants. In 2016 you acquitted grants. In 2017 you acquitted grants. And you advised the Auditor-General that everything was aboveboard.

Prof. Thomas : And, certainly, in all respects of the administration and our back and forth, that was the case. In these cases, there are news sensitivities that come to light—

Senator KIM CARR: News sensitivities?

Prof. Thomas : that may not have been apparent at the time—

Senator KIM CARR: Alright. Let's have a look at them.

Prof. Thomas : and we simply are contacting institutions to make sure we have a comment on anything new that comes up.

Senator KIM CARR: Okay. So one of the news sensitivities was directed, for instance, at Professor Edward Holmes, in an article published in the Telegraph back on 11 May. Now, Professor Holmes is a laureate fellow. Was there any problem with his laureate?

Prof. Thomas : Not that I'm aware of.

Senator KIM CARR: No. He has just been made New South Wales Scientist of the Year. But, according to the Murdoch press, he is some sort of stooge for the Chinese government. Did you take any action in regard to this report on 11 May?

Prof. Thomas : That, I couldn't say.

Ms Dent : We wouldn't comment on specific cases.

Senator KIM CARR: No, of course you won't. But he has been subject to death threats, his team have been subject to rape threats—and what have you been done about it?

Prof. Thomas : Senator, we want to provide public assurance that there is integrity in the research system. Like you, we don't want false accusations levelled at researchers.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, indeed. Of course you do not want to have false accusations.

Prof. Thomas : So we will follow-up to understand.

Senator KIM CARR: But I'm saying this was back in May—these allegations, patently untrue—and I want to know what you've done about it.

Prof. Thomas : In each case, we will follow up with an institution. We can't comment on details of individual cases, but we do have a standard process—

Senator KIM CARR: Alright. Chair, I'd like to table a letter here from the chief program officer at the ARC, if I might do that. Can you make sure the officers get to see it. Are there enough to go around? Can you confirm, Professor Thomas, that's an ARC letter that has been sent out?

Prof. Thomas : It certainly appears to be, written by my colleague.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you confirm that letter?

Ms Dent : It does appear to be a redacted version of a letter that was sent.

Senator KIM CARR: It is a redacted version. I don't want to name the professor it's been sent to, or the university. It says, 'It's come to our attention that Professor X, named as a participant on an application at X university, is a high-risk individual,' because—on what basis?—the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's China Defence Universities Tracker website says so. Is that the basis on which you make this assertion?

Prof. Thomas : Senator, we scan for public sensitivities. We do not attest to their truthfulness or otherwise, but we enable a natural justice response from universities.

Senator KIM CARR: Natural justice? This is natural justice, is it? You've asked them, 'What due diligence was undertaken by your organisation to judge the security risks'—the security risks!—'of the proposed research outline in the applications; what due diligence activities were undertaken by the organisation in relation to Professor X's affiliation with an overseas university; what arrangements are in place to protect the IP generated?' Surely you would have checked all that when you acquitted these grants?

Ms Dent : I'd like to correct you, please, Senator. This is in relation to an application, not an ARC funded grant.

Senator KIM CARR: Well, an application—the principle remains the same. You would have confirmed all of these matters. Let me put it to you another way. You've changed the conflict of interest and confidentiality policy, on about 8 September, have you not?

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: On what basis did you do that?

Prof. Thomas : To enable an increased range of declarations from researchers who are applying to ARC funding.

Senator KIM CARR: And what were you seeking in particular?

Prof. Thomas : There are a specific set of declarations, mostly about their foreign links.

Senator KIM CARR: Foreign connections?

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: I see. And the purpose of that was to?

Prof. Thomas : To increase transparency around perceived interests that people have, to enable universities to have a look at that when they're making applications.

Senator KIM CARR: And you've relied upon ASPI's tracker?

Prof. Thomas : We scan a range of sites, and that is simply one.

Senator KIM CARR: Who advised you to use the tracker as a tool to determine due diligence?

Ms Dent : We're not a security agency and we are not using the tracker as a tool.

Senator KIM CARR: Sorry? You have referred to this in all the correspondence.

Prof. Thomas : We've been trying to grow an understanding of what sensitivities represent risks, and the point we're at at the moment is: when we identify sensitivities of a range of different types, whether or not people think they are valid, we seek assurance from universities that any risk perceived in that sensitivity is being managed.

Senator KIM CARR: Sure. But, Professor Thomas, you would have done that at the time of the acquittal.

Prof. Thomas : Certainly we have followed our processes rigorously, as ANAO has said.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes.

Prof. Thomas : This is simply following up on anything new that has come to light.

Senator KIM CARR: So you go back five years, and then, because someone down the road here has a foreign-funded research project—US$140,000 to fund that project—and because someone puts it out and puts some scurrilous material in a Murdoch newspaper, you decide that you're now going to run this jihad against some of our most prominent scholars!

Prof. Thomas : We want everyone to have confidence—

Senator KIM CARR: 'Confidence'!

Prof. Thomas : in the research system.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, we'd have confidence in you—surely, that's part of it as well.

Senator Hume: Senator Carr, I think that's unreasonable—

Senator KIM CARR: Well I—

Senator Hume: It is unreasonable. I think that ARC is entitled to do due diligence on how it spends taxpayer funds.

Senator KIM CARR: Then I'd ask you this: Professor Thomas, when you've looked at the ASPI report, have you noticed the disclaimer on it?

Prof. Thomas : I don't have anything in front of me.

Senator KIM CARR: Well, what it does say—and perhaps I should table that as well, if I could get a copy of that—is: 'No person should rely on the contents of this publication without first obtaining advice from a qualified professional.' Now, apart from the Murdoch press, surely no person should rely upon the content of this publication without obtaining advice from a qualified professional. Surely you're qualified professionals?

Prof. Thomas : I said, we don't attest to the truthfulness or otherwise of sensitivities we find, but we put that to universities to seek their assurance.

Senator KIM CARR: Just refresh my memory: how many notifications have there been of breaches of the defence export control act?

Prof. Thomas : Zero that I'm aware of.

Senator KIM CARR: Zero—zero! Surely that would be a professional body that you could rely upon—not this type of nonsense. What consultations did you undertake before you revised the policy to rely on documents such as this?

Prof. Thomas : We've been in conversation for some time now with the foreign interference taskforce coordinator's office, and we implemented changes to our due diligence policy as a result of those discussions and to increase transparency as a means of mitigating any perception of influence.

Senator KIM CARR: And what has the response been from the universities?

Prof. Thomas : It's a fairly recent implementation, so I wouldn't say we've heard from them all.

Senator KIM CARR: What about the peak organisations? How are they going with it?

Ms Emery : We spoke with the peak organisations just prior to implementing this change of policy.

Senator KIM CARR: Sure. So the Group of Eight—what do they think of it?

Ms Emery : I think you'd better ask the Group of Eight what they think of it.

Senator KIM CARR: No, I'm asking you.

Ms Emery : We had a broad discussion around what the planned or proposed changes were. I don't think I could say what their views were, Senator.

Senator KIM CARR: You don't think you could say. You've got correspondence to—

Ms Emery : I wouldn't like to respond on their behalf.

Senator KIM CARR: Alright. Are you prepared to table the correspondence from the Group of Eight? Are you prepared to table your correspondence so that we can make sure we get the full picture, and their correspondence?

Ms Emery : We had a face-to-face or a videoconference discussion.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, sure, but what about the correspondence? Is there any correspondence between yourselves at the ARC and the Group of Eight?

Prof. Thomas : Yes there is. I would need to take advice on that to understand what we could provide you with.

Senator KIM CARR: Well, I'll ask you to table all of that correspondence in regard to the changes that you're proposing as of—let's be precise about this—let's say the day after these documents were published by The Australian. That was the 24th, wasn't it? That's when you first wrote back, isn't it?

Prof. Thomas : I'm happy to take this on notice and I'll take advice—

Senator KIM CARR: I just want to be clear—I don't want you to be confused as to what I'm asking for, or for there to be any misunderstanding, equally, as to the nature of this request to you. I don't want this to be argued as commercial-in-confidence or a breach of privacy or anything, because it goes to the policy settings and the responses of our major universities, which you might recall have something close to 70 per cent of the grants. Is that right?

Prof. Thomas : That sounds about right.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, that's about right. So—

CHAIR: Senator, do you have much to go?

Senator KIM CARR: I have quite a while to go, and plenty of material, but if someone else wants to have a go I've got plenty of time tonight.

CHAIR: I think I'll give the call to Senator O'Sullivan.

Senator KIM CARR: Is there any reason why I can't have that correspondence tonight?

Prof. Thomas : I will need to take advice, Senator.

Ms Emery : We don't have it with us.

Senator KIM CARR: You don't have it with you?

Prof. Thomas : No.

Ms Emery : No.

Senator KIM CARR: So tell me this: does the IT system at the ARC prevent you from transferring documents to Parliament House, or is it—

Ms Emery : Senator, I think we went through that at the March estimates and it proved it difficult for us to do—

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, I know, that's because you couldn't find the letter the last time I made inquiries—

Ms Emery : Senator, we've taken it on notice and we will—

Senator KIM CARR: I just wonder why you can't provide it tonight.

Senator Hume: Senator, they've taken it on notice.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Speaking of confusion: maybe I'll ask this question for those who are following at home, just to put it on the record. I'm just having a look at the questions that you actually asked in your letter, which the senator has tabled—this so-called 'jihad' that Senator Carr has referred to. These are the questions: 'What due diligence activities were undertaken by your organisation to judge the security risks of the proposed research outlined in the application, and what risk level was determined?' The second question is: 'What due diligence activities have been undertaken by your organisation in relation to the professor's affiliation with the said university?' And the third question is: 'What arrangements are in place to protect the IP generated from this research project to ensure that the benefit of this research remains in Australia?'

It's hardly a jihad. I would have thought it's a bit of accountability. The strongest possible term that I could think of was maybe a 'please explain' and that would have been about it, I would have thought. Can you give us a response, please?

Prof. Thomas : That's the intent: to understand what universities have in place because a sensitivity has been detected—whether or not that sensitivity represents the truth.

Ms Emery : And I would just reiterate, Senator, that these are in relation to applications for funding. They aren't in relation to grants that have already been provided.

Senator KIM CARR: And how does that differ from the current arrangements that are in place for the conflict of interest to be managed at each and every institution in the country, and by the ARC itself?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Do I still have the call, Chair?

Senator KIM CARR: Sorry, I thought I'd help you out with the completion of the actual question.

CHAIR: The essence of team spirit is fantastic. Senator Davey has a question, and then we'll be back to you shortly, Senator Carr.

Senator DAVEY: The last question on that letter about IP, to me, is really important because in the past we've had a lot of really good work done by Australian universities, Australian researchers, where the IP has gone overseas, so those that reap the benefit of the work that has been conducted in Australia are overseas enterprises—

Senator KIM CARR: That would be a breach of the current regulations.

CHAIR: Senator Carr, please.

Senator DAVEY: I want to understand the purpose of that final question regarding IP. Is that to protect Australian interests, Australian businesses and Australian industry? Because, with all due respect, Senator Carr, we have seen time and time again work done in Australia that has been developed and then the IP suddenly resides overseas.

Senator KIM CARR: But not the ARC funded grants.

Senator DAVEY: I'm not pointing a finger at any single nation. It has happened time and time again with different nations. I'd just like to understand. Will that final question help us to ensure that, whatever contract we enter into with an overseas institution, we retain the IP that is developed onshore?

Prof. Thomas : Senator, at this point I'd differentiate between two slightly different situations. Most ARC funding awarded goes to groups who do have some international collaboration. Co-discovery may occur in a project, and then it may be entirely appropriate that IP coming out of the project is shared between creators in Australia and beyond. The intent of this question is to understand that IP arrangements are thought of early and that the administering institution has an IP policy that complies with the National Principles of Intellectual Property Management for Publicly Funded Research, which have clauses in them about gaining benefit for Australia.

Senator DAVEY: So it's just reassuring us that the existing requirements of IP are actually being thought of when entering into a new agreement.

Prof. Thomas : Yes, that's clear.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: With regard to the people who were mentioned in these articles, isn't this just an opportunity to actually—I mean, if there is no problem with answering these questions and they can give solid answers that satisfy the ARC, that would actually be of benefit to enabling them to rebut what has been claimed of them, wouldn't it?

Prof. Thomas : We believe increased transparency is a positive thing, and my colleague they wish to add more.

Ms Emery : Just to clarify, these questions are on applications and some of the issues in relation to the articles are in relation to grants that have already been given. The purpose of the question is to ensure that they have met their obligations under the grant agreement. It remains a requirement on the ARC under the PGPA Act to ensure that we have an ongoing role in ensuring the proper expenditure of Commonwealth funds.

Senator KIM CARR: How is that different from the present arrangement?

Ms Emery : Sorry, I'm not sure I understand the question.

Senator KIM CARR: How is that different from the present arrangements?

Prof. Thomas : I'm sorry, Senator, how is what different?

Senator KIM CARR: Your proposed changes to the conflict of interest? How are they materially different from the present arrangements?

Ms Emery : This is really about making clear, Senator, that we are asking questions around whether there has been foreign support for research activities, whether there have been affiliations of that kind of intimate relation.

Senator KIM CARR: I want to be clear about this. I understand you've had some feedback from the Group of Eight. That's been pretty strong, hasn't it?

Prof. Thomas : Certainly we have been in correspondence with them, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: It's pretty strongly worded correspondence, isn't it?

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: What's their concern?

Prof. Thomas : Without going into the details, one of the issues that have been raised is the veracity of the information that has been used to detect sensitivities.

Senator KIM CARR: That's right, particularly the tracker. Isn't that the case?

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: What is the issue in regard to the veracity of the tracker?

Prof. Thomas : Universities feel that it is not a good source of information.

Senator KIM CARR: They certainly do. That is somewhat of an understatement. There have been occasions when the institute has actually got the wrong university, got the wrong person and got the wrong country! Is that true or not?

Prof. Thomas : There was one instance and that was clarified.

Senator KIM CARR: Can you clarify what that instance was?

Prof. Thomas : Not off the top of my head, no.

Senator KIM CARR: It was to do with Taiwan, wasn't it?

Prof. Thomas : I believe it was, yes.

Senator KIM CARR: This is the matter in regard to Professor Wenlong Cheng, professor and director of research in chemical engineering at Monash University; is that the case?

Prof. Thomas : I can't remember the details of who it was about. We would prefer not to comment on individuals—

Senator KIM CARR: The point is he's been commented upon. He's been pilloried across the country. You put out, on the basis of this material, statements to these universities a day after this article appeared; that's the case, isn't it?

Prof. Thomas : It was fairly soon after.

Senator KIM CARR: The day after. This material is not always correct even in specific detail—having the wrong university, the wrong person and the wrong country. You're saying that that's the basis on which you then seek these questions which I presume you would have covered off in the current guidelines and procedures of the conflict of interest, which have been in place for how long now?

Prof. Thomas : The best part of a decade.

Senator KIM CARR: A decade. The Auditor-General says they are ridgy-didge or in very good shape. Would you agree?

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: And you feel the need to act on them now because of this nonsense that is coming out of ASPI? That is the nature of the complaint, is it not?

Ms Emery : The ARC has an obligation when it becomes aware of allegations in relation to researchers or research which has been funded by the ARC to undertake due diligence in relation to those allegations. That is regardless of whether it is a current grant or a past grant. That is the practice across all of these types of allegations. When we raise them with an institution, it is then the institution's opportunity to correct the record.

Senator KIM CARR: So there is no statute of limitations on your acquittal processes; is that what you are saying?

Ms Emery : I don't believe there is.

Senator KIM CARR: That is the new policy, is it? That's good.

Ms Emery : That is the existing policy.

Senator KIM CARR: Was the ARC advised, for instance, by your minister to monitor the connections in any particular jurisdictions or any institutions?

Prof. Thomas : No.

Ms Emery : I don't believe so.

Senator KIM CARR: So there's been no advice from the minister's office?

Prof. Thomas : The ARC has always scanned for sensitivities.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, I understand that. But I'm talking in regard to the actions that were taken the day the material appeared in The Australian but not, I might add, when the material that appeared in the Telegraph. I don't think you have explained why you did not act on the Telegraph material. Perhaps now you could tell me why didn't you act on it then.

Ms Emery : I have no idea.

Prof. Thomas : I can come back on notice.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, take that on notice. So it wasn't because the minister asked you to?

Prof. Thomas : No, it is a standard process at the ARC.

Senator KIM CARR: So you acted on your own advice?

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Ms Emery : As we would in relation to any allegations in relation to research that is funded by the ARC.

Senator KIM CARR: So you've acted on the basis that you say you're required at law to do this?

Prof. Thomas : We are managing Commonwealth funds. If we become aware that something adverse is out there, we want to give the administering institution an opportunity to respond.

Senator KIM CARR: Where is this additional information that you are seeking going? Is it going back to the minister's office?

Prof. Thomas : It will come to us.

Senator KIM CARR: Is it secure in your office?

Prof. Thomas : We manage a range of sensitive information, and this will be managed in the same way.

Senator KIM CARR: Is it available to other agencies within government?

Prof. Thomas : We have not provided it to other parts of government.

Senator KIM CARR: But it is available, isn't it?

Ms Emery : If they made a request then the ARC would manage that information under the Privacy Act obligations.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, you are obliged to provide it, aren't you?

Prof. Thomas : I'm not sure that's clear here.

Ms Emery : We would need to take that on notice.

Senator KIM CARR: You're not clear?

Ms Emery : We are not clear. Sorry.

Senator KIM CARR: Would you like to take that on notice?

Ms Emery : Absolutely.

Senator KIM CARR: Is it the case that it's available to the minister?

Prof. Thomas : No.

Senator KIM CARR: It's not?

Prof. Thomas : This is correspondence to the ARC.

Ms Emery : In relation to a grant which has been previously given.

Senator KIM CARR: From last year you started to collect information about the country of birth and date of birth of applicants. That's correct, isn't it? That's the first time you sought that information?

Prof. Thomas : Yes. That sounds right.

Senator KIM CARR: That's part of your Research Management System.

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you follow up any foreign associations or affiliations of the applicant in receipt of grants, even if they're Australian citizens?

Prof. Thomas : We will follow up on allegations or things that come to light. But it's not about a particular country; it's across everyone.

Senator KIM CARR: It's not illegal to be involved in the fellowship programs, for instance, of other countries, is it.

Prof. Thomas : No, it's not.

Senator KIM CARR: In fact, the head of ASIO made that point the other day. You would have noticed those remarks.

Prof. Thomas : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: So it's not about any specific country?

Prof. Thomas : No. It's country agnostic.

Senator KIM CARR: How many of your applicants have advised of foreign associations or affiliations, as a subset of the applicants that have advised in the latest round, the 2020 round?

Ms Emery : The additional questions in relation to country of birth and date of birth were for applications in 2019, for the latter half of the 2019 period. They have already been assessed.

Senator KIM CARR: So you'll be able to provide that information for me for 2019—

Ms Emery : That would only be in relation to country of birth. The new questions have come into play since September 2020, so we wouldn't have any information at this stage on those affiliations of applicants.

Senator KIM CARR: So, for the 2020 round, there's no change as yet? That hasn't actually been implemented formally, has it?

Ms Emery : The 2020 round has opened—

Senator KIM CARR: But has it been implemented?

Ms Emery : The rounds which open in 2020 have those new questions in there.

Senator KIM CARR: When do they close?

Ms Emery : Over a variety of dates. There will be some that close later this year and then some into next year.

Senator KIM CARR: Are you able to provide a clear statement for applicants, giving an explanation of the purpose of seeking the information about foreign associations and affiliations and an explanation of how this will be used in the decision-making process?

Ms Emery : I think we've already done that.

Senator KIM CARR: Where can I find that?

Ms Emery : I believe it's on our website. There was a network message at the time of the—

Senator KIM CARR: Could you provide us with a copy of that.

Ms Emery : We certainly can.

Senator KIM CARR: Will that go to the issue of whether or not the minister chooses to agree to a grant being provided?

Ms Emery : No. It goes to the purpose of why we are collecting the information, from memory.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, but will that information go to the issue of ministerial approval of grants?

Prof. Thomas : The minister, as decision-maker, can take into account any information he chooses, but at this point the ARC has generically advised of sensitivities, and what we seek to do is to also advise on how those sensitivities are mitigated.

Senator KIM CARR: Is it the case that this information will be provided to the minister?

Prof. Thomas : Not at this point, no.

Senator KIM CARR: At what point will it be?

Ms Emery : Can I go back to the purpose of collecting this information. In the first instance, the first phase would be for institutions to understand what affiliations researchers have prior to making an application to the ARC. That will support institutions' information on the guidelines to counter foreign interference in Australian universities. Once that goes through that first pass from institutions, and deputy vice-chancellors of research are satisfied it's an appropriate application—because it's a quality application, it has the right level of partners and it has the right level of chief investigators—the ARC will undertake a second phase of due diligence in relation to those applications to identify any issues. If it identifies that there are issues, it would then seek further advice from institutions.

Senator KIM CARR: That's been the case in the management of conflicts of interest at universities for some time, has it not?

Prof. Thomas : Yes, the process has; the declarations have just become broader.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm trying to establish what has led to that change, other than ASPI's report. Statements such as 'China's great science swindle' contain within them statements to the effect that no claim is actually made against the scholars concerned. You did note that, didn’t you?

Ms Emery : I think the Director-General of ASIO also provided this evidence last week, which was that it was working with the Australian Research Council to improve its management of issues around foreign interference and foreign influence. And it has been assisting the ARC over the last two years to do that, to increase our level of due diligence.

Senator KIM CARR: I repeat the question: have you been able to establish any breaches under the Defence Trade Controls Act or any of the very rigorous regulations that concern those relationships with international collaborations?

Prof. Thomas : Not at this stage.

Senator KIM CARR: What do you mean 'not at this stage'?

Prof. Thomas : Not to date.

Senator KIM CARR: 'Not to date'! 'Not to your knowledge'! This is the point: I have asked this question for some years and you've never been able to point to any example where there has been a breach of the law or the regulations. I've asked you a question in relation to the operations according to the Australian National Audit Office and there has been no difficulty associated with your administration of those grants in terms of conflict of interest, foreign interference or any of those 'misdemeanours' that people talk of—I'm trying to use the word gently, because the claims made in these reports are actually horrendous but there is no evidence presented—or in your own reports in regard to your responsibility to report breaches to the finance department. There is no evidence whatsoever. Other than this tracker funded by the US government, what have you got?

Prof. Thomas : I don't do the scans myself. I would need to take that on notice. We use a number of different sites.

Senator KIM CARR: So what's required these days is for someone to make an innuendo or a claim regarding an applicant, a recipient of a laureate fellow, and you will run an investigation. But when will you put out a statement to exonerate these people? Have you put out any to date?

Ms Emery : If we are satisfied with the advice that has come back from the institution, that is the end of the matter. Our relationship is in relation to—

Senator KIM CARR: It's not the end of the matter for these professors. They're the ones with the death threats and the rape threats. It's not the end of the matter for them. The question is: what are you doing to defend their reputations?

Ms Emery : That would be the role of the institution, because they are the employer of the researchers in question.

Senator KIM CARR: What is your responsibility to defend the integrity of our research system and our scholars?

Prof. Thomas : I think that's what we are doing though. The question is: do we find no breaches because we ask no questions, or because we ask questions and we get assurance that things are being managed appropriately?

Senator KIM CARR: I've been asking you these questions for three or four years. This has been a campaign run by certain elements of the security establishment in this country. The defence department has issued statement after statement rejecting the claims that have been made about our university research. You've had plenty of time to establish whether or not there's any basis to the claims. Throughout that period, you have consistently told me that you have no evidence of any breaches of the law or any regulations. I'm just wondering: what does it take for you to come forward and actually defend our scholars?

Prof. Thomas : We undertake contacts with institutions, and we do that in an appropriately measured way rather than an out-there sort of way.

Senator KIM CARR: 'Measured'—right.

Senator DAVEY: Chair, can I just—

CHAIR: Senator Carr, if you don't mind, Senator Davey—

Senator DAVEY: Just if you don't mind, Senator Carr.

Senator KIM CARR: No, I don't mind, I suppose.

Senator DAVEY: It's directly relevant to what you're saying and implying. I understand Senator Carr's concerns about when investigations are taking place and the implications for the good reputation of professors, but does the ARC go out and proactively put out press releases when they are asking questions? Do you, the ARC, go out and put out a press release proactively stating that you are undertaking an investigation?

Prof. Thomas : No, we don't.

Senator DAVEY: So, if that information gets into the public domain, it's not through the ARC?

Prof. Thomas : Yes. We will be respectful as we proceed to investigation, because we don't know the truthfulness or otherwise of the allegations that are made.

Senator DAVEY: Yes. I just wanted to clarify that, Senator Carr, because I agree with you that when—

Senator KIM CARR: Professor, this has been slammed across the front pages of newspapers for a great while and run through the ABC for a great while. I'm waiting for the ARC to do its job. In this particular case, Professor Edward Holmes, the New South Wales Scientist of the Year—I want to table this, Mr Chairman, in regard to him—is a man who has been subject to this vilification. You've had plenty of time. It is a strange thing that the New South Wales government doesn't seem to have any problem honouring a man who is a laureate fellow—a laureate fellow; I want to emphasise how important that is—but the ARC can't actually say anything positive to defend one of our leading international scholars. I just can't understand. What does it take? A Liberal government in New South Wales doesn't seem to have any trouble doing it.

Prof. Thomas : Well, I don't think that I can be held responsible for what's published in newspapers.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, you can.

Senator Hume: No, they can't. They're not responsible for what's published in newspapers.

Senator KIM CARR: Well, I don't want to get into a side argument about how material gets into newspapers, but it is in the newspapers, attacking the ARC. It attacks you funding these scholars. The Telegraph article specifically attacked the ARC, and you did nothing about it. I asked you questions about the situation in regard to Professor Hoj, where we had problems finding the correspondence. My concern is that the ARC has been extremely slow in defending our scholars,. You've actually got a good record in terms of the way in which grants are administered in this country and managing those conflict-of-interest issues. I just cannot follow why you don't actually defend our international scholars in the same vein. I've finished my questions; thank you very much. The rest of my questions I'll put on notice given the hour.

CHAIR: Senator Carr, if you've finished your questions, and there are no questions from the government, that is the best news I've heard for a long time! I'd like to thank you, Professor Thomas and fellow officers of the Australian Research Council, for coming along. You are free to go. Thank you, Secretary, for coming also. Thank you, Minister, for all that you have done in the time that you have been here, and I thank Minister Birmingham. I mean that sincerely, actually. This concludes today's proceedings. The committee is due to recommence its examination of budget estimates on Thursday 29 October. Thank you to Hansard, Broadcasting and the secretariat. Everybody who should be thanked, consider yourselves thanked.

Committee adjourned at 21:15