University research and the pub test

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:

research pub test

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 Pubevenings 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).

Underpinning this whole debate is what Daniel Sarewitz calls the myths of public science. I have discussed these myths before. In summary:

  • 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.

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34 Responses to University research and the pub test

  1. Anthony Park says:

    –The myth that new knowledge has no moral consequence. Poor behaviour on the part of scientists is justifiable – think climategate, stem-cell research, etc.

    Why is stem-cell research being put in the same basket as climate-gate?

  2. JohnA says:

    Since, by definition, Ph.D. research is required to be in an area not already covered, topics will eventually soar into realms unknown – and unknowable – in any down-to-earth pub conversation.

    Eventually, someone will want to explore the space-time region in which the Heart of Gold Starship travels – where the Infinite Improbability Drive tells Space to get knotted in the minimum amount of Time possible – preferably in a Bow Tie because the Eleventh Doctor says they are Cool.

    Maybe that prospect might inform the Grants Council sufficiently to persuade the members that they have no purpose and should cease making grants.

  3. JohnA says:

    Why is stem-cell research being put in the same basket as climate-gate?

    I guess that should say Embryonic stem cell research. Adult stem cell research is yielding some excellent results apparently.

  4. Paul says:

    I recall in days gone by we had Entrepreneurs who would either come up with the ideas, or backed someones ideas, and take the risk of losing the lot, or making a motza. These days it seems the taxpayer via our g’mnet is taking all the risk and losing a motza. Smooth talking snake oil salesman are on the rise in our universities.

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Why is stem-cell research being put in the same basket as climate-gate?

    Here and here.

  6. Eyrie says:

    It’s quite simple really, the grants council is spending other people’s money.
    See if you can get Paul Allen or Bill Gates to fund you. They are likely to be a bit more careful. Same if you just tried to crowd fund your research on the net. No convincing argument, no money. Too bad.

  7. OK, so here we go again.

    The inestimable Philippa Martyr’s 2012 piece on the subject, focusing on the arts and humanities.

  8. Harald says:

    Please keep in mind that there was no government doling out cash for research in Einstein’s day:

    Einstein just did the work .. while drawing his wages as a technical expert third-class at the Bern patent office. And that is how he invented quantum physics and relativity.

    I am not sure if Einstein is the example present day academics want to use to justify their turn at the government teat.

  9. Habib says:

    Kudelka is another leftist with no sense of humour and incapable of rational thought, who can’t actually draw. Of course they’re automatically an Australian political cartoonist. Comparing the general theory of relativity with the dross researched by third rate MacDonalds dodgers in this country is pathetic, even by his/her rather parlous standards.

    I’d like to see a list, or even one piece of research carried out in this country that has proved of worth, or benefit to humanity. These charlatans are little or no better than the lampreys firmly affixed to the yartz funding manatee.

  10. Bad Samaritan says:

    Is this thread only about serious science, or about all grant snafflers?

    Over at Tim Blair there is this……

    “Research Grant [Cite as

    Researchers: Prof Kaarin Anstey , A/Pr Rachael Morton , Prof Ester Cerin , Prof Judy Simpson (Participant) A/Pr Dafna Merom (Principal investigator)

    Brief description Exercise is an effective intervention to prevent falls by the elderly, particularly programs that included balance enhancement. Dance is a series of multi- directional coordinated rhythmic movements with additional mental and social components. This study will determine if participating in 12 months of social dancing is an effective option to prevent falls among the elderly, and whether dancing can improve the motor-cognitive risk factors for falling.

    Funding Amount $AUD 594,024.95

    A simple google search gets this…….

    “A separate study conducted by researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro found that seniors who regularly participated in ballroom dancing reported improved balance and were less likely to fall.”, and this….

    “As many as 28% to 45% of elders fall each year.
    Though our balance will decline as we age, balance activities such as dancing, elderly balance exercises and elderly balance training can limit the loss or actually improve our performance.” and this…..From UC Berkeley….

    “Better balance, improved mood
    Many studies have found that dancing can improve balance, even in frail elderly people. Some have shown improvements in gait, walking speed, and reaction time, as well as cognitive and fine motor performance. Dance studies have included jazz, ballroom, tango, folk, and a series of slow, low-impact dance movements—though any kind of dancing would likely be beneficial.

    And on and on and on….

    OK. If that $594,024.95 can be withdrawn, I am willing to do the research, which the very very highly credentialled lady perfessers (five of them; $600,000; that’s quite a few girls’ nights out in Rio and Madrid and other dance hotspots….researching) have snared, but for a mere, lazy, $100,000 only!

    Generous with my time and expertise, aren’t I?

  11. Anthony Park says:

    Hi Sinc,

    Firstly – housekeeping the first link doesn’t seem to work.

    I would suggest if you want a good example of stem-cell fraud look at the ‘Acid Bath iPS’ papers in Nature that were retracted. The pressure to publish combined with the journal wanting to be first, a mistake Nature has made multiple times.

    As for using Alan Trounson as an example, I think that is less clear-cut. I vaguely know him and his cohort, while their stem cell marketing strategy and the way they operated their departments is totally open for criticism, as scientists, as far as I can tell, they are pretty robust. You might find articles in the media (e.g. here) about scientists in Alan’s department removing data points. Which made him quite unpopular at Monash. I can see how this would make a link with climate-gate. However, this went back to debatable lab/department management – because good academics don’t necessarily make good leaders of people. Ultimately, the science was good and not fraudulent.

    I think that that period of Australia’s stem cell research history probably goes back to your Myth of Accountability. Monash Uni was perhaps trying to replicate the success of non-teaching institutes like WEHI. On the research side of things I think they did brilliantly, on the management, not so much. In the end, they couldn’t attract enough investment and those departments were closed.

    [link fixed. thanks. Sinc]

  12. Mr Rusty says:

    This topic comes up every bloody year around this time. There are a slew of articles about the total waste of money and non-existent impact of piles of utterly pointless, shit research – mostly emanating from Yartz – and everyone gets all annoyed and shouty for a few days then we forget it all for another 11 months and 25 days. Nothing is done, nothing happens and no action is taken. Then a year later, we read the same story all over again and it is accompanied by an even larger list of even more useless research by total losers.
    Just Rabz the ARC.

  13. Snoopy says:

    I’d like to see a list, or even one piece of research carried out in this country that has proved of worth, or benefit to humanity.

    Cactoblastis, myxomytosis, rabbit calicivirus.

  14. Bad Samaritan says:

    Harald (11.31am). Yeah. Back in the day when Albert still had a dark moustache, serious scientists used to get together to thrash out their theories and notions, and to tear strips off one another. Here is one such hoedown and hootenany.

    Plenty of those dudes ended up quite well-known in Physics and Chemistry circles even without getting the big govt bucks. They had integrity back then too. Ah well…

    BTW. In that great read The Strange Story of the Qantum Banesh Hoffman made a fine pun which sums up the spirit of robust and rigorous intellectual / scientific debate all those years ago, in a time when scientists were willing to produce all the evidence without fear for fame and reputation….

    Chapter V: The atom of Niels Bohr
    Chapter VI;The atom of Bohr Kneels

    This book really is a must for anyone interested in real science, and real scientists.

    2nd BTW; One of my favs is Pauli….

    “Regarding physics, Pauli was famously a perfectionist. This extended not just to his own work, but also to the work of his colleagues. As a result, he became known in the physics community as the “conscience of physics,” the critic to whom his colleagues were accountable. He could be scathing in his dismissal of any theory he found lacking, often labelling it ganz falsch, utterly wrong.

    However, this was not his most severe criticism, which he reserved for theories or theses so unclearly presented as to be untestable or unevaluatable and, thus, not properly belonging within the realm of science, even though posing as such. They were worse than wrong because they could not be proven wrong. Famously, he once said of such an unclear paper: “This is not right. It is not even wrong!”[2]

    I’m guessing Wolfi would not have been too kind to Climate Science, eh?

  15. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Anthony Park – I’m sure there are heaps of further example, but those were the ones I was thinking of.

  16. Yohan says:

    Governments cling to the ‘education funding leads to economic growth’ mantra when they are out of ideas to grow the economy, or cannot make any tough economic decisions, so it becomes an easy way out.

    The only prayer Labor and the left has on growth is education funding, a panacea and cure for all ills, according to them. It’s no surprise this Liberal government is getting desperate and talking the same rubbish.

  17. Yohan says:

    Research funding, I mean.

  18. Mayan says:

    waste of money and non-existent impact of piles of utterly pointless, shit research – mostly emanating from Yartz

    Of course, there is the possibility that some of the indecipherable product of those faculties might actually be cryptography research. It would explain the works of Judith Butler, the high priestess of turgid prose, and her acolytes.

  19. Habib says:

    Snoopy, should’ve added the filter of “funded through the ARC”.

  20. Pat Warnock says:

    I heard Ms Trioli say Monday that knocking back all grants would Professor But then she finished the croc report by saying ‘Good on ya’.

  21. Pat Warnock says:

    Sorry the last comment got away from me
    I heard Ms Trioli say Monday that knocking back all grants would mean that there would be no more Professor Hawkings. But then she finished the croc report by saying ‘Good on ya’.

  22. Having attempted to absorb the astonishing warehouse of brilliant information extant in the article above by Sinclair Davidson, his awesome links, the links within the links – then having attempted the same with the commentaries: I tell you it stretches one’s mind magnificently.

    And here is the problem.
    There are so many tangents. As nearly always on Catallaxy.

    And what are the chances that those mentioned – from the ARC to the lame leftist cartoonist Kudelka – and scores in between would ever read / understand / modify /contribute to the contrary / or attempt to counter any / all the devastating critiques herein?

    It is much worse than that.
    There are dozens of current items in the news journals surely daily; too many risibly inept as well. What are the chances that this article by Sinclair D – surely a great modern – day example of excellence will make a difference?
    What would Einstein say if he saw what the impeachable twirpery current astro – physicists have foisted on us via the parties described?

    Contemplate the obvious as well: in plainly this is all preaching to the converted.

    Nevertheless, I wonder how these people above and say the 900 climate scientists taking up the oxygen at CSIRO – would feel if it ever came to pass that their collective of moribund minds were put to work doing really useful work – perchance saving lives.


    What do these people tell their partners when they come home? Do they proudly announce an addition to the Climate Corruption Dictionary? [I just made it up: someone should document it all: start with say LUFT– GESCHEFT? A beautiful Jewish phrase.

    It is all so pathetic: what was once excellence in research has morphed systematically into aberrant asinity. And tertiary education that merely 25 years ago could not be impeached: everyone trusted them, everyone gave credence to ‘experts.’

    It will surely one day that the pub test [see first paragraph above] will decimate the professional twirps who care not that non expert plebians realize they shame themselves!
    And the responsible scientists who do not have the courage to call them out!
    And there are a few who do – who care not for the sham of group – think peer review!

    The answer is to create a TRUTH AND HONESTY IN EVERYTHING ROYAL COMMISSION with a website where the plethora of impostors / could attempt to defend their modus vivendi / operandi.
    Or risk humiliation.
    Or worse – have their funding cut!

    Government of Turnbull no longer will need a courage – implant to act against the billions wasted!
    Malcolm will simply shrug his shoulderrs and opine that the shams failed to defend their tenure!

    A Cultural History of Finance – Google Books Result
    Irene Finel-Honigman – 2009 – ?Business & Economics
    … coining the phrase “windhandel” (air business), “luft geschaft” in nineteenthcentury German and Yiddish, emphasizing the illusory nature of these speculative …

  23. Habib says:

    Had no idea the ARC funded Dalek Boy.

  24. Tel says:

    It’s not at all clear to me why the taxpayer should pay for someone like Einstein to study relativity. There’s no discussion in the Australian Constitution about paying for any type of scientific research, nor does it benefit the Australian people in any way directly.

  25. TimT says:

    Honestly, to the extent that Morrison et al are trying to apply a ‘pub test’ to ARC grants it’s a load of crap – it’s just another version of government’s trying to pick winners. And they’re doing it in the worst way possible, because they’re not even getting their guidelines from experts – they’re making judgments according to a couple of tabloid headlines.

    Abbott started this nonsense, Turnbull should end it.

  26. James Hargrave says:

    Quoting from a letter of mine published in the Oz in 2010, mainly in connexion with the Australian Research Council’s spruiking of journal rankings (an idea that had been tried and failed in Europe before they took it up and which was lauded as a great success until taken out at midnight and buried at a cross roads with a stake through its heart): ‘Might one suggest that the ARC itself be measured against research councils and similar organisations abroad? Beta double minus at best.’ Faced with its manic, micro-managed, overblown application processes, a better way to award grants would be another test. Just make the applicants use a poker machine (random, cheap, efficient – no bureaucrats to pay – and just as likely to hit gold).

  27. Lem says:

    The whole Kudelka cartoon is built on a lie.

    Is he trying to say Einstein got public funding to develop his theory of relativity? Not that I am aware.

    Plenty of R&D happens in the market all the time, and is rewarded according to the benefit the consumer perceives.

    Governments, being unfree usurpers of public funding should get out of the equation. and stop wasting stolen public monies as if they own it.

  28. motherhubbard'sdog says:

    Classic misdirection ploy by Morro. Unable to muster up sufficient cohones to tackle real government waste, he tilts at the windmills of academe. Even if the government abolished all ARC grants tomorrow, the budget would hardly notice the difference.

  29. Crossie says:

    Why is stem-cell research being put in the same basket as climate-gate?

    I guess that should say Embryonic stem cell research. Adult stem cell research is yielding some excellent results apparently.

    Embryonic stem cell research was/is very useful in justifying abortions and sale of foetuses.

  30. AP says:

    Even if the government abolished all ARC grants tomorrow, the budget would hardly notice the difference.

    You have obviously never done a budget. $700m here, $700m there, in a budget of several thousand line items, it adds up.

  31. Rabz says:

    utterly pointless, shit research – mostly emanating from Yartz – and everyone gets all annoyed and shouty for a few days then we forget it all for another 11 months and 25 days.

    Rusty – that’s because there is never ending cavalcade of other things to get annoyed and shouty about.

  32. sabrina says:

    There is a strong belief that if you know the College of Experts well, you stand a good chance of getting a grant. Some of my academic friends from Engineering have shown me comments from reviewers on their ARC applications- very brief, sometimes poorly written by non-English speaking career academics, and devoid of any practicality.

    Every year around November, ARC publishes the name of grant recipients and a short summary. But you do not see what these recipients delivered by the end of the project.

  33. BorisG says:

    I do not know if there is a lot of waste in ARC. It is extremely competitive. The success rate is something like 10% if not smaller.

    some people say here that it is easier to get money from government than from the industry. I have a different experience, which is much more mixed.

    And yes, ARC never reviews the results but you did not publish the results in decent papers you are unlikely to get the next grant.

  34. Get some sleep says:

    I’d like to see a list, or even one piece of research carried out in this country that has proved of worth, or benefit to humanity.

    WiFi anyone?

    Then theres discovery of trace elements, helicobacter pylori and stomach ulcers, colony stimulating factors…

    For those just interested in GDP there is Federation wheat

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