It is easy to see the benefits from the advances we have made in physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science and the life sciences. Without these impressive leaps in understanding, we would not have lifesaving drugs; computers, wifi; modern transport and the warm, safe houses that are essential to our contemporary lifestyle.
Ask anyone to list the world’s top inventions and you are sure to get a list of gadgets and materials. The benefits are immediately tangible and directly traceable.
What about the social sciences?
Less heralded are the benefits to society derived from the ideas of the social sciences and humanities. Anecdotally, we can see that when they are good, they are very good.
Financial innovations in the form of marine insurance, for example, made the great 17th century European voyages of trade to India and beyond possible. The invention of the joint stock company funded the railways.
In most cases, reforms to social institutions do not occur without shifts in public attitudes about human rights, entrenched poverty, business models and social responsibility. Policy makers rely on the eloquence and clinching logic of philosophers from law (Julian Burnside, Michael Kirby and others) and the other humanities to lever these changes through.
Innovation is a team sport
Innovation is a human activity. It is rare to find a lone genius, and, even if one existed, they would be unlikely to make a big impact because human interaction is needed to transform these ideas into widespread use.
Yet our understanding of how we can engineer change and societal betterment is largely unscientific and is based on anecdotes, intuition and prejudice. We throw dollars at nascent ideas with only a rudimentary consideration of the human context in which the research will be undertaken.
There are researchers who are undertaking objective, robust studies on what makes research successful: how do research teams transcend national boundaries (Paula Stefan); how do networks of researchers optimally interact (Dean Lusher); what is the trade-off in research between breadth and depth of skill (Ben Jones); and how do breakthrough inventions arise (Reinhilde Veugelers)? But funding for these studies is minuscule compared with the billions of dollars spent worldwide in research for the physical sciences.
Physical sciences still seen as the main game
The explicit assumption in almost all research funding bodies is that the physical sciences are the main game – serious men’s work – and the HASS (humanities, arts and social sciences) is the fluffy stuff we need to keep the “girls” happy.
Three quarters of Australian Research Council funds go to the science and engineering disciplines and only one in ten Centre of Excellence grants are given to the HASS community.
University rules about what constitutes good research are dominated by what is normal in the natural sciences. Professors have “labs” with a few post-docs and a dozen PhD students. This is not the model that works for the HASS disciplines, but the HASS are constantly having to fight against this assumed model of “gold standard” research. International rankings are based on hi-cite definitions and Web of Science databases that assume the normal physical science mode of operation is the best.
Where should we spend our marginal dollar?
It is a question of where is the best place to spend our marginal dollar. Consider the last million dollars of our national research budget. Should we spend it on the physical sciences or on the social sciences and humanities? Where are the barriers to change that are stalling improvements to our society?
I would argue that changing community understanding on how a carbon tax operates (i.e. by changing householder and business behaviour) would have had a bigger effect on Australian carbon emissions than another study on the engineering of photovoltaics.
The Daily Telegraph breached its own code of conduct in its coverage of the Australian Research Council (ARC) this week.
On Monday, the News Corp Australia tabloid splashed with a story by Natasha Bita entitled:
Taxpayer dollars wasted on ‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research
The article was highly critical of a number of research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in recent rounds. It began:
Millions of taxpayer dollars destined for vital research have been handed to arty academics for social engineering projects ranging from Tibetan philosophy to office gossip and warfare in ancient Tonga.
The Daily Telegraph did not approach many of the researchers whose projects it ridiculed for comment. And while Bita approached and received comment from the ARC for her story, she did not run its comments in her report. The ARC’s chief executive, Professor Aiden Byrne, wrote in an email:
The ARC was contacted by Natasha Bita about The Daily Telegraph article prior to publishing. The ARC provided a response to Natasha, but this was not used in the article.
The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct clearly says “facts must be reported impartially, accurately and with integrity”, and reports should “try always to tell all sides of the story in any kind of dispute. Every effort must be made to contact all relevant parties.”
However, despite gathering comment from the ARC, The Daily Telegraph elected not to tell the ARC’s side of the story. The deliberate decision to refuse the ARC and academic researchers a right of reply appears to be a straightforward breach of the News Corp Australia code of conduct and, more broadly, of basic journalistic principles of balance and accuracy.
It is misleading to judge the short titles or brief descriptions of research projects and infer that they are not useful research without looking at the detail of the project, which is extensively considered by the ARC expert assessors in determining its worthiness for funding.
Ridiculed researchers not contacted
The Conversation has contacted all the chief investigators of the projects mentioned in Bita’s article. None of the researchers we have spoken to were contacted by The Daily Telegraph before the article was published.
Professor John Powers, of the Australian National University, is a co-chief investigator on the research project about Tibetan philosophy ridiculed by Ray Hadley on 2GB, who read about it in Bita’s article. “No, no-one contacted me about the article,” he told me in an email, adding that Buddhist studies were important for Australia’s relationship with Asia.
There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia and around the world. Better understanding of their worldviews helps in many intangible ways, and if our leaders and policymakers had better insight into these things they’d probably be more effective in their diplomacy and in their interactions with Asian counterparts.
Associate Professor Hannah Lewi, of the University of Melbourne, is a co-chief investigator on a project examining post-war Australian universities, also attacked in Bita’s article. She confirmed The Daily Telegraph had not contacted the researchers. “No, no-one consulted us before these articles,” she wrote in an email.
We are, I guess, used to the annual research-bashing articles that come out in the press about politicians calling out waste-of-money ARC-funded research. It feels like whacking day for the humanities.
Monash University’s Andrew Benjamin shares an ARC Discovery Award with Jeffrey Malpas which “proposes a new philosophical vision of what it means to be human”. Benjamin told me bluntly:
I was not contacted, and that I think is a betrayal of journalistic standards.
Like many other academics that I spoke to, Benjamin was profoundly disappointed that The Daily Telegraph had not even bothered to let him explain the merit of the project for which he had received funding. He found the article especially frustrating, he told me, as he argues that “it’s the job of philosophy to provide criteria for social judgment”.
Monash University scholar Shane Homan’s project on Australian contemporary music also featured in the article. “I can confirm that I was not contacted by anyone from News Corp about the article,” he said.
The article ignores the precepts of good journalism. Good analysis ensures that the reader has context – to let rip simply on the basis of grant abstracts is lazy, Homer Simpson journalism.
I reached Discovery Early Career Researcher Award recipient Lucas Ihlein on the road, as he travelled to Queensland to research his project on the social engagement of art in the complex environmental dilemma of the Great Barrier Reef. He said:
No-one got in touch with me. The first I heard about it [was when] the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Wollongong Uni sent me a message to say ‘we’re very sorry about it and we hope you’re okay’. There was no attempt [to contact me] whatsoever.
Ihlein argued his research would benefit the farming communities of central Queensland. He wrote in a Facebook post:
The desire to make changes is coming from within the farming community itself, which has begun to recognise that traditional farming methods using chemical fertilisers and pesticides are no longer financially viable, nor are they environmentally responsible.
Instead of contacting academics, or running the comment she gathered from the ARC, Bita went shopping for an expert to buttress her report. Her article cites Michael Potter at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a neoliberal think-tank, as its only expert source.
The CIS did not put out a publication or media release about ARC funding results, and Potter is not an economist known for his work in research policy. His publications for the CIS have all been about tax and superannuation. The Conversation understands the CIS did not pitch any remarks about research policy, but rather that Bita contacted the CIS seeking comment for her story.
The CIS refused an interview with Potter on Thursday and Friday, claiming he was “unavailable”. A spokesperson would not comment on questions about Potter’s scholarly credentials in research policy or higher education, instead issuing a statement from Potter reiterating his remarks. “I stand by my comments,” he wrote.
I contacted a number of leading economists with research profiles in research policy and innovation. None would endorse Potter as a scholar with any record in research policy.
The University of Queensland’s highly cited innovation scholar Mark Dogdson told me:
I’ve never heard of Michael Potter, but he appears not to know that societies advance more when knowledge is pursued for its own sake, rather than for instrumental reasons, and no-one can ever predict what knowledge will be useful.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the CIS was at the forefront of policy debate, pushing an intellectually bold and coherent argument for free-market policies. But I haven’t seen a new idea from them in years. This tired rehash of a theme that was done to death by the late US senator William Proxmire 40 years ago, and by his Australian imitators under the Howard government, is sad evidence of this.
To simply pluck things from the ARC website and to question whether that’s a valid use of taxpayers’ resources without contacting the researchers is just a distortion. It’s a cheap move, a populist move, and it smacks of a certain type of anti-intellectualism.
The Queensland University of Technology’s Stuart Cunningham has written extensively on research and innovation policy. “As a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, I endorse the Academy President Professor John Fitzgerald’s response to The Daily Telegraph attack,” he wrote in an email. He continued:
Science and technology can’t go it alone. Tackling today’s global challenges requires deep knowledge of people, societies and cultures that underpin, fuel or react to these challenges.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the ARC controversy is that no media outlet has mentioned the federal government’s latest Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements, handed down last November. Carried out by Ian Watt, a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the report was largely supportive of the quality of federally funded academic research. Its very first line reads:
The overall quality of the Australian research sector is high by OECD standards.
Bita’s Daily Telegraph article was politically significant. It was taken up by radio host Ray Hadley, who lampooned many of the projects cited in the article on his 2GB show that day.
Hadley directly attacked the ARC, claiming its funding was “piddling up against the wall”, and used his weekly interview with Treasurer Scott Morrison to call for a “pub test” for federal research funding.
After a lukewarm defence of ARC-funded work on snail infestations, Morrison agreed with Hadley about the need for ARC decisions to enjoy “public support”. He said:
It’s a fair point, Ray, and I think it shouldn’t be lost on those who make these decisions, and it’s certainly not lost on us, and we expect them to take into account public support for these types of activities.
Those who make those decisions, whether they’re bureaucrats or ultimately politicians, you need to be mindful of that.
Morrison’s comments were then widely and shared on social media and reported by other media outlets, including an article by Jared Owens in The Australian.
I made repeated efforts to contact The Daily Telegraph about this article. I emailed, tweeted and called journalist Bita – a Walkley Award winner – and The Daily Telegraph’s editor, Chris Dore, putting a series of questions to them in regard to this story.
In particular, I asked them whether the researchers working on the projects mentioned in the article had been contacted, whether the ARC had been contacted, and whether the article represented a breach of The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct.
At the time of writing, no response had been received.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is suffering one of their frequent relapses into frothy-mouthed panic about government wastage on research grants. Poking at layabout academics for ‘wasting’ tax dollars on seemingly frivolous projects reminds me of nothing more than the schoolyard bully who secretly knows he peaked in year 9. Today, the Tele flattered me by holding up one of my own projects for ridicule, ironically illustrating their point that rusted-on ideology, and patronage provide the most direct route possible to mediocrity.
In an ‘Exclusive’ Natasha Bita goes beyond the tried-and-true formula of simply spouting big school words culled from the titles and summaries of grant proposals, and giggling “what does that even mean?”. She pits a handful of phrases from grant summaries against more urgent priorities, quoting Michael Potter of the Centre for Independent Studies:
Would it not be a better investment to fund research into cures for disease, major social problems, and ways to boost the Australian economy?
Quite. Presumably we can leave it to the Tele and the CIS to decide on which research is most beneficial? Without the need for all that grant writing and peer review?
Trying to isolate researchers by painting some research as valuable and the rest as claptrap is a clever strategy. But devoutly as we all may wish for an end to cancer, even cancer researchers, hell even some cancer patients think there are other priorities too.
Sexual conflict and the taxpayer
The Australian Research Council no longer publishes the titles of grants in its funding announcements. I’m not sure what the official line is, but the impression among my colleagues is they seek to present a small target to exactly this kind of pillory, which becomes annual sport when the likes of Andrew Bolt tire of their regular targets of faux-outrage.
Now the ARC publish only summaries of the projects or their likely benefits. Never mind, those can be cherry-picked too. That’s how I found my project mentioned in today’s paper. A NewsCorp blogger named Tim Blair picked up on a project of mine, in which I collaborate with economists Pauline Grosjean and Paul Seabright, that was funded in last year’s round.
Surely a government that genuinely believes we have serious debt and deficit issues wouldn’t give more than $500,000 to the University of NSW for a project that “intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and intersexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes”.
And here’s the bit that convinces me “Tim Blair” isn’t just a poorly programmed bot:
It’s difficult to tell what’s meant by “intersexual conflict interacting with economic circumstances” but it’s probably something to do with taxpayers getting screwed.
See what he did there? If it doesn’t snare the Walkley, it’ll definitely have the boys down the pub chuckling into their schooners.
The bit that Mr Blair quoted selectively was from the description of our project On the origins and persistence of gender: Combining evolutionary and economic approaches to study sex differences and cultural variation. You won’t find that title on the ARC website, but you will find the full project description.
This project intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and inter-sexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes. These phenomena are important in evolution, economics, psychology and sociology, with implications for the economy and for the welfare of women and men. The project predicts that gender-related culture arises, partially, out of mating market dynamics. The research crosses traditional boundaries between biology and economics to investigate the forces giving rise to gendered behaviour and resulting patterns of marriages, violence, political preferences and occupational choices. The project may provide new insights into the links between gender and violence, within-family conflicts, and gender roles in the home and workplace.
In 18 years of applying for research support, I have never yet proposed a project with more pressing or important consequences. It contains so many of the things that conservatives fulminate over: declining marriage rates, rising violent and non-violent crime, and changing gender roles. If our project can provide new insights into intimate partner violence, or why young men take risks with their lives, or the reasons behind declining marriage rates, I would expect the likes of Bita, Potter and Blair to show at least the minimum humane curiosity.
Curiosity, it seems, is a limited commodity at Telegraph HQ. As is the capacity to do even the most cursory research. Shonkily researched assertions are okay if you enjoy the safe patronage of a major news organisation. You would never get away with such abject laziness, or such contempt for professional disinterest, in a grant proposal to a federal funding body.
Ray Hadley picked up the Telegraph’s baton in an interview with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, demanding that the ARC justify its funding decision in the front bar of a Western Sydney or North Brisbane pub.
Yes, after the forlorn cries for better funding of research rang through Science Week last week, and as the ARC sits in Canberra to decide the outcomes of this year’s biggest schemes, the pro-ignorance side of the culture wars has decided to play their favourite game. Their attempts to paint researchers as out-of-touch layabouts draining the public purse are, if you read the comments on Blair’s blog, playing well with the patrons of those very pubs.
Our ideas are already well pub-tested, Mr Treasurer. Many a research project is hatched in a bar-room conversation. Many of us still have the scrawled-on beer coasters to prove it (#putoutyourcoasters?), and receipts to show we spent our own money to buy the booze. And there seems no end of “Research in the Pub” evenings in which academics explain their research and discuss ideas with members of the curious – drinking – public.
And the fewer than 20 percent of projects that succeed in gaining funding have passed a trial by fire more intense than any front-bar witch hunt Messers Hadley or Morrison could confect. Indeed the real scandal here is how much of Australia’s top-notch intellectual effort is wasted by only funding a small proportion of the many deserving projects. If the treasurer is as worried about waste as he professes, then perhaps he should find the money to fund universities and research in line with the kinds of country Australia should hope one day to become.