research / Briefing and working papers

Australian government support for research collaboration with the PRC

July 17 2023


When the 2022 round of the Australian Research Council (ARC)’s Discovery Projects [1] was announced, higher education watchers immediately identified what appeared to be a sharp decline in support for projects involving research collaboration with partners in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – from between 50 and 80 in previous years to 23.[2] This followed allegations that such collaboration served as a conduit for espionage, foreign interference and intellectual property theft, as well as supporting ends that were contrary to Australian values.[3] These allegations prompted a variety of government responses, including the establishment in 2019 of a University Foreign Interference Taskforce that formulated guidelines to address such challenges.[4] These guidelines were subject to, in the Australian government’s words, a ‘refresh’ in 2021.[5] There has since emerged some evidence that some researchers based in Australia, particularly those with a mainland Chinese-background, were becoming ‘overcautious’ or ‘hesitant to apply for government grants’, with others leaving Australia altogether.[6]

This analysis aims to provide a deeper understanding of developments in Australian government funding support for research collaboration involving the PRC, and how these changes have affected mainland Chinese-background researchers based in Australia to date. To do so, data from three ARC grant schemes between 2019 and 2023 have been collected and analysed. The schemes include the Discovery Projects scheme, the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) scheme, and the Future Fellowship scheme. With a combined annual budget of roughly $400 million and an application success rate of just 19 percent, these three schemes are lucrative but extremely competitive.[7] 

Key takeaways

- By examining three of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) grants schemes over the last five years, this analysis shows a sharp decline in funding support for collaboration with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) relative to other international partners. This is despite many of these other partners being less significant creators of knowledge globally.

- The decline in funding support is more pronounced in some Australian universities and fields of research than others. There is also evidence suggesting that mainland Chinese-background researchers based in Australia have maintained their presence on successful grant teams, even as less support is provided to collaborate with researchers based in the PRC.

- There are legitimate reasons to curtail collaboration with PRC-based researchers in specifically defined areas on national security and ethical grounds. Australia’s national interest is not served, however, by overstating the threats, nor by a climate of uncertainty which prompts researchers to pre-emptively shy away from potentially productive collaborations in order to secure already scarce grant funding.

Ethan Pooley is an Administrative Assistant at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney (UTS:ACRI).

Professor James Laurenceson is Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

To read the full paper please download the PDF



[1] The ARC Discovery Projects scheme ‘reflects the Australian Government’s commitment to excellence in research by providing grant funding to support research projects that may be undertaken by individual researchers or research teams.’ See Australian Research Council, Discovery projects, accessed July 4 2023 <>.

[2] John Ross, ‘Australia-China research collaboration nosedives’, Times Higher Education, February 17 2022 <>. 

[3] James Laurenceson, ‘Lessons from Chinese government interference in Australia’, 9DashLine, February 14 2022 <>.

[4] Australian Government Department of Education, University Foreign Interference Taskforce, accessed July 4 2023 <>.

[5] Australian Government Department of Education, ‘Refreshed Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector released’, November 17 2021 <>.

[6] Yun Jiang, ‘Winning hearts and minds: The PRC’s efforts to attract scientific talent’, China Matters, December 2022 <>.

[7] The budget and rate of success are a combination of the three schemes this paper is concerned with. See the ‘Summary of Outcomes’ of each individual scheme for exact figures. For Discovery Projects, see Australian Government – Australian Research Council, Selection Report: Discovery Projects 2023, accessed July 4 2023 <>; for Discovery Early Career Research Award, see Australian Government – Australian Research Council, Selection Report: Discovery Early Career Researcher Award 2023, accessed July 4 2023 <>; and for Future Fellowships, see Australian Government – Australian Research Council Selection Report: Future Fellowships 2022, accessed July 4 2022 <>.