PvOs long bow on research and western civilisation

Last week we got the news that former education minister Simon Birmingham had vetoed some ARC research grants. This was the second time in recorded human history that an Australian education minister had exercised oversight over the higher education sector. This first time was in the mid-noughties when then education minister Brendan Nelson also vetoed some  ARC grants.

This is such an unusual occurrence that even normally sensible people get it wrong. Then there is Peter van Onselen – trying far too hard to fit in at the ABC.

The minister may think he simply knocked silly research ­topics with obscure titles on their heads. But it’s the precedent he’s setting that is the most ­important consequence of his ­actions.

The processes that give academics arm’s-length autonomy from the state is one of the reasons Western culture advanced the way it did.

What Birmingham did is something I would expect from a petty bureaucrat in communist China or an overreaching official in Iran’s Guardian Council, not an education minister (of all people) in this robust Western civilisation.

To be clear – as far as I’m aware no academics have yet been dragged off to the gulag, summarily executed,  hanged from cranes, or thrown off buildings. Nobody has been forbidden to do any research – not by the government anyway. All the minister indicated was that the taxpayer wasn’t going to directly support that research. What has happened is that research funding has been redistributed – something the left normally approves of – a whole bunch of other projects that are very good and worthy of funding but were waitlisted for funding now got funded.* The government spent exactly as much on research as it intended and I suspect it would be very hard to differentiate between those projects that were slated to be funded and those that ended being funded.

Apparently it then gets worse:

That new Education Minister Dan Tehan is planning a jingoistic ­“national interest” test for future grants is even more ­concerning — not simply because it is a lowbrow, knee-jerk reaction. What will happen to important ­research with international implications under a “national ­interest” test? Research that perhaps challenges the current ­“national interest”?

PvO then craps on about what is the national interest, how do we know, how it has changed over time, etc. etc. etc. I completely agree that the notion of a ‘national interest’ is a weasel phrase and is usually empirically empty. Yet I suspect that PvO wouldn’t normally hold to that view.

Okay – so what is going on here? So one of the grants that got vetoed was ‘Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity’ with the author asking for $926,372. To my mind the national interest question is, ‘Why is the Australian government paying for this and not the US government?’. That is not unreasonable. Now this becomes a marketing question – the answers goes along the lines of, ‘Australia and the US have similar cultural backgrounds yet very different histories of treating indigenous people. What can we in Australia learn from the US experience and how can we better understand the modern culture within the US which exports a lot of its cultural understanding to Australia and is a very important trading partner, Blah, blah, blah.’. Someone bullshit story no more that 100 words or 750 characters on the ARC form.

Many years ago the ARC funded a project into medieval Icelandic poetry. No idea how to justify that in the Australian national interest. But I’m sure some story could be cooked up. Otherwise why isn’t the Icelandic government paying for it?

PvO points to another application:

I took the time to look into the rejected grant applications. One was an Australian National University researcher who was approved by the ARC to investigate: “The role of multiples in cultural exchange, through a study of Louis XIV prints and medals sent as gifts to Europe, Asia and New France. Using the latest digital methods for data visualisation, and an ­interdisciplinary approach to analysis, the project expects to generate new knowledge about the role of material culture in economies of global exchange. Expected outcomes include groundbreaking digital and printed publications that question the stability of inherent meanings in Western objects when they travelled to non-Western contexts. This study thus promises to ­deliver significant benefits by providing a new model for understanding object-based communi­cation across past and present world societies.”

Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds a lot like the kind of topic a department of Western civilisation might look into. 

Last point first – as I understand it the ANU has rejected the idea of a department of Western Civilisation. The national interest question here is why isn’t the French government paying for this? As it turns out – as described here – this would be a very interesting project that revolves around valuation theory, art as tokens, and property rights.

So I understand the notion of a national interest test to be: Why are you asking for money from the Australian government to research issues that foreign governments could or should be financing? Now there are good answers to that question. It’s not unreasonable for the government to ask that question even though we know there are good answers. The politicians might not know those answers and the taxpayer almost certainly don’t.

Paying tax is a burden. Spending taxpayers’ dollars is a privilege.  It is not unreasonable to have to justify and explain why it is that you want to spend other people’s money.

*Let’s work on the assumption that the government is going to fund some university research.  Whether it should or shouldn’t isn’t under discussion at the moment.

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26 Responses to PvOs long bow on research and western civilisation

  1. The problem with this government (or most previous ones) is how they sell their actions to the public.
    Lack of proper selling leaves them open to attacks by leftist arseholes like PVO.

    All the minister had to do was a stunt at a press conference.
    Set up a paper shredder, have a table stacked with past “research” and read out the title and HOW MANY CITATIONS IT HAS RECEIVED.
    Citations are what matters. If a paper has zero citations (most…that’s right…most have zero citations) then it was useless research. NOBODY HAS READ IT, NOBODY HAS GAINED FROM IT except the carpetbagging researcher.
    Then proceed to feed the research paper into the paper shredder.

    The Aussie public will instantly GET what the minister is on about, and left wing arseholes like PVO would be rendered mute.

  2. Tel

    The Minister is the one person directly responsible to the citizens via democratic process. Our concept of “national interest” might be fuzzy at times, but it’s much more strongly embodied in the Parliamentary process than the secretive, unaccountable civil service.

    What Birmingham did is something I would expect from a petty bureaucrat in communist China or an overreaching official in Iran’s Guardian Council, not an education minister (of all people) in this robust Western civilisation.

    Well duh! The petty bureaucrats are handing out the other 99% of research grants, and those are the people normally involved in accepting or rejecting ARC applications. The job of the Minister is to keep the petty bureaucrats in line. How does PVO think the system works?!?

    I’d like to see the Minister more involved, not turning a blind eye to million dollar crapola.

    Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds a lot like the kind of topic a department of Western civilisation might look into.

    Bollocks it is. Anything containing phrases like “… question the stability of inherent meanings …” is not seeking the empiricism and practicality that our civilization was built on.

  3. Marcus

    Well duh! The petty bureaucrats are handing out the other 99% of research grants, and those are the people normally involved in accepting or rejecting ARC applications. The job of the Minister is to keep the petty bureaucrats in line. How does PVO think the system works?!?

    Honestly, I think he thinks the minister should just rubber-stamp whatever recommendation he gets given by the bureaucrats, and he’d hardly be alone in that. Remember the outcry when Peter Dutton rejected “expert advice,” applied his own common sense and allowed a couple of au pairs to remain in the country?

    As far as the issue of grants goes, if you’re applying for taxpayer money someone should be accountable for making sure that the taxpayer gets value for that money. How many people would read the results of that “Western objects” project, how many people would understand it and how many still would apply it to their own dealings with other cultures?

    Honestly, if people out there want to understand how Chinese culture, or Arabic culture or Persian culture views Western objects it would be far more productive for them just to study those cultures directly. No grants required.

  4. John Constantine

    The current placebo government is just jollying the proles along for a few short months more, before the trepanning shorten regime loosens the pressure caused by worldly possessions.

    The grants will be resubmitted as part of the looting process redistributing resources from the proles to the maaaaaates of the incoming punishment battallions.

  5. Rafe Champion

    Congratulations to Sinc for having the fortitude to read PVO columns. I suppose somebody has to do it.

  6. RobK

     This was the second time in recorded human history that an Australian education minister had exercised oversight over the higher education sector. 
    That’s the nub of the problem.

  7. Old Lefty

    A quibble, however. Is nothing relevant to Australia unless.it happened on Australian shores? Surely we are part of a broader Western history – or is the Italian Renaissance, for example, ‘relevant’ only to Italians? You’re sounding oddly like the Australo-Marxists of the 80s and early 90s who proclaimed that if it wasn’t about Marxist lesbians I. Redfern it wasn’t relevant to Australia.

  8. Tim Neilson

    Honestly, I think he thinks the minister should just rubber-stamp whatever recommendation he gets given by the bureaucrats, and he’d hardly be alone in that. Remember the outcry when Peter Dutton rejected “expert advice,” applied his own common sense and allowed a couple of au pairs to remain in the country?

    Of course they pick and choose when they think Ministers ought to use their own judgement.
    Remember the outcry when Abbott, as Health Minister, FOLLOWED the advice of the Chief Scientist of Australia to ban an abortion drug?
    Of course the luvvies’ Stalinist revisions of history now assert that Abbott used his Catholicism to override the “science”.

    The only safe rule is to work out what the ABC and Fairfax are advocating and then do the exact opposite.

  9. Snoopy

    The obvious solution to the trauma caused by a minister vetoing ARC grants is to ditch the ARC and its grants.

    Or don’t we have an intractable budget deficit problem?

  10. Ian of Brisbane

    It’s the Ministers job to prevent waste of taxpayers funds. This clearly would apply to any grants sought by PVO.

  11. Sinclair Davidson

    Is nothing relevant to Australia unless.it happened on Australian shores?

    Well yes. That is the answer to the question.

  12. jock

    A mill to study sioux and us interreactions. I would havecthought many american academics have already done this one. But god a mill to yravel the states , seecthe sights and c then write crap noone will read.

  13. Shy Ted

    This is the highlight of ScoMo’ government so far. $4m of grant rejections. Barely make a dint in that $15b of renewables funding. You’ve got to laugh at how the lefties are oblivious to the debt they’re running up.

  14. Tel

    Of course they pick and choose when they think Ministers ought to use their own judgement.

    Remember when Gillard’s “Fair” Work Australia wanted to stop a few mandatory penalty rates that had already been sold out by various unions in most places?

  15. Tel

    This is the highlight of ScoMo’ government so far. $4m of grant rejections.

    Budget Repair (TM)!!?

  16. Entropy

    A bit of research I am involved in applied for an ARC grant and was not successful. I, of course, think it endlessly more worthy than these projects, but then I am a scientist and this lot is humanities.
    Anyway, I rustled up funding from elsewhere so the ARC can suck it. It will get published anyway.

  17. manalive

    Simon Birmingham rejecting the grant application for over $200,000 to study ‘Double Crossings: post-Orientalist arts at the Strait of Gibraltar’ said something along the lines that it represented five year’s taxes for a hardworking plumber which puts it in perspective.
    Ditto for ‘Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity’.

    “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until she knows absolutely everything about nothing”

    ― Nicholas Murray Butler.

  18. miltonf

    “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until she knows absolutely everything about nothing”

    Absolutely spot on. What an absurd leviathan the educashun ‘industry’ has turned into. If only Canbra had stayed out of it. I guess Menzies and the Murray report (1957?) had the best intentions too.

  19. Crossie

    The Minister is the one person directly responsible to the citizens via democratic process. Our concept of “national interest” might be fuzzy at times, but it’s much more strongly embodied in the Parliamentary process than the secretive, unaccountable civil service.

    I work in the tertiary education sector and find the ignorance of some staff astounding as to how our government works, even how democracy works. This particular decision has been a hot topic of discussion with people who should know better declaring that government ministers should not be allowed to make such important decisions as research funding.

    Universities that were traditionally centres of knowledge and learning are now just discussion groups and PoV who bills himself as a professor fits right in.

  20. Crossie

    Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds a lot like the kind of topic a department of Western civilisation might look into.

    Bollocks it is. Anything containing phrases like “… question the stability of inherent meanings …” is not seeking the empiricism and practicality that our civilization was built on.

    Of course it’s bollocks. Why else would they all have rejected the Ramsay bequest? They all seek to deconstruct and destroy Western Civilisation, not study or promote it.

  21. Texas Jack

    Everyone who’s not anyone is a reactionary according to the always very right (adjective) Professor Van Wrongsolong. Everyone who holds a counter-position to PvW’s apparently wants to roll back time to the 1950’s. Everyone who thinks the Liberal Party would have been better off if Turnbull had abandoned the party in 2009, thus avoiding several post-Gretch train wrecks, is apparently a complete dunce.

    Van Wrongsolong’s contribution to the recent post-spill debate has been to trumpet unflattering Newspolls and declare “I-told-you-so” as if Longman had zero to do with Turnbull going over the cliff. He’s about as credible as Niki Savva, only more predictable.

  22. H B Bear

    More wrongology from Prof van Wrongselen. The national interest test could be solved by scrapping the ARC and having research submissions dealt with by the front bar of the local pub by the poor bastards whose taxes pay for this bvllshit.

    I’ll give you the tip – the rejection rate will be much higher than $4m.

  23. miltonf

    Griffith University is pleased to announce the appointment of Professor Peter van Onselen to the Griffith Business School as Professor of Politics and Policy

    Professor van Onselen brings to Griffith extensive experience in the fields of politics and journalism, including that garnered through his role as Foundation Chair of Journalism at the University of Western Australia and several years as a presenter on Sky News.

    In addition to his academic credentials, Professor van Onselen has also been a contributing editor with The Australian since 2010, written for a diversity of other well-known national mastheads including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and he delivers a weekly segment on ABC Radio National.

    He is also a regular fixture of local screens, appearing fortnightly on ABC’s The Drum and as a regular panellist on Insiders.

    Earlier this month, Professor van Onselen preceded his official appointment with the University as the moderator of a Griffith-hosted Q&A session with Federal Labor MP Jim Chalmers.

    Griffith Business School Pro Vice Chancellor Professor David Grant said Professor van Onselen’s appointment was an obvious coup for the University.

  24. H B Bear

    If you want to work for a taxpayer funded organisation completely free from Ministerial oversight go and work for the ALPBC.

    Oh wait …

  25. Old Lefty
    #2856023, posted on November 3, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    A quibble, however. Is nothing relevant to Australia unless.it happened on Australian shores? Surely we are part of a broader Western history – or is the Italian Renaissance, for example, ‘relevant’ only to Italians? You’re sounding oddly like the Australo-Marxists of the 80s and early 90s who proclaimed that if it wasn’t about Marxist lesbians I. Redfern it wasn’t relevant to Australia.

    Here’s a thought. Why doesn’t this research rent seeker get a proper job (yes even teaching) earn some money AND WRITE A BLOODY BOOK IN HIS/HER SPARE TIME?
    Then if the subject matter is relevant to ANY AUSTRALIAN, they can part with their hard earned and buy the fvcking thing.
    But that’s the whole rent seeking point isn’t it? The subject matter is relevant to one arsehole, the researcher himself/herself. He/she knows the book would never get published because nobody gives a shit about the subject matter.

  26. I think a students HECS debt should be shared equally between the University, the student and the eventual graduates employer.

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