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.