In public hearings on 9 March 2022 of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee’s inquiry into the Australian Research Council Amendment (Ensuring Research Independence) Bill 2018, a number of questions have been raised about the role and powers of the Minister for Health with respect to grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The following is the basis on which NHMRC conducts grant recommendation and approval processes under its legislation.
Approval of grants
NHMRC receives Annual Appropriations in the Federal Budget and transfers funds to the Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) for granting purposes.
The MREA is a “Special Account” for the purposes of section 80 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (PGPA Act) as per section 49 of the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (NHMRC Act).
Grants are awarded from the MREA in accordance with the NHMRC Act:
- Each year, NHMRC Research Committee reviews and recommends an MREA Budget to Council, in accordance with paragraph 35(2)(a) of the NHMRC Act, for amounts to be awarded across grant schemes in the calendar year.
- Council advises the CEO on expenditure from the MREA for each grant scheme as per paragraph 21(1)(a) of the NHMRC Act.
- The CEO recommends grants to the Minister under paragraph 7(1)(c) of the NHMRC Act, and the Minister approves this funding in accordance with subsection 51(2) of the Act.
The Minister for Health is the decision maker under the NHMRC Act. The Minister is able to approve some or all or none of the grants recommended by the CEO. There is nothing in the NHMRC Act that prevents a Minister from 'exercising a veto' on any particular grant.
NHMRC has no record of a Minister not approving a grant recommended by the CEO.
Under the NHMRC Act, the Minister may give directions in writing to the CEO, Council and Principal Committees. However, the Minister cannot direct the CEO to fund a grant unless it is recommended by the CEO under paragraph 7(1)(c).
Specifically, under section 5E, any directions given by the Minister must be of a general nature only and, in particular, the Minister is not entitled to direct the CEO, the Council or a Principal Committee to recommend the allocation of research funds to a particular person, organisation, State or Territory (paragraph 5E(2)(a)).
Any questions or further clarification can be directed to NHMRC at email@example.com.
9 March 2022