Another Coalition government, another outbreak of research funding hysteria.
Treasurer Scott Morrison has cautioned the Australian Research Council to consider the popularity of new research projects, amid pressure to impose a “pub test” on the agency’s decisions.
Economist Michael Potter of the Centre for independent Studies, a classical liberal think tank, has criticised the ARC’s expert panels for funding “obscure projects” while the government reduces spending on other areas of research.
The only person with any street-cred on this issue is Brendan Nelson – long gone from the parliament – who actually vetoed several frivolous research projects.
Kudelka at the Australian is having a bit of fun:
I’m not sure what the problem is though – PhD students these days are encouraged to participate the so-called “three minute challenge” where they have to be able to explain their thesis in plain language in under three minutes. It is not clear to me why academics applying for public funding should be treated any better than they treat their own students. Many university seminars are now labelled as “Research at the pub”.
Then there are responses like this:
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 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.
That individual is annoyed because some of his own research has been identified as perhaps not passing the pub test. I was surprised to read:
The Australian Research Council no longer publishes the titles of grants in its funding announcements.
Something to hide, and they know it.
I suspect, however, this is a storm in a tea cup. The current government is a big fan of throwing money at R&D and innovation and business-university joint research. We have discussed this before, here and here. They don’t have the ticker to be tough on waste.
Underpinning the arguments we hear and see a lot is the so-called “linear model” – the notion that academic science leads to technological innovation that in turn promotes economic growth (see here for extensive discussion).
- The Myth of Infinite Return:
–There is a notion that money spent on science and innovation automatically, at some point, translates into economic growth.
- The Myth of Unfettered Research:
–This myth argues that not only will basic research have some long-term value, but any curiosity-driven research is likely to have some long-term value.
–This myth rejects any notion that public funding of science be subject to a cost-benefit analysis – the more public science the better.
- The Myth of Accountability:
–All researchers need do is deliver research that is ‘scientifically sound’. In other words, scientific excellence is social accountability.
–This myth suggests that because science is a self-regulating self-correcting process that it is best left to the scientists.
- The Myth of Authoritativeness:
–Contrary to the myth, science cannot resolve political controversy. The notion that politicians can simply make decision by recourse to ‘the facts’ is nonsense.
–Political controversy revolves around value-judgements and cost-benefit analysis, not just scientific fact.
- The Myth of the Endless Frontier:
–The myth that new knowledge has no moral consequence. Poor behaviour on the part of scientists is justifiable – think climategate, stem-cell research, etc.
It is true that some university-business clusters have evolved in parts of the the US and western Europe and have driven phenomenal innovation and disruptive technologies. It isn’t clear to me, however, that the Australian environment is conducive that emulating those activities. Mostly because our friends in Canberra are too prescriptive around business regulation, taxation, and industrial relations. When government spends too much time trying to steal your super and not enough time deregulating and cutting taxes and spending it is unsurprising that businesses don’t invest or innovate.