IN DEFENCE OF BASIC RESEARCH

 

IN DEFENCE OF BASIC RESEARCH 

Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities annual conference

University of Tasmania

Hobart

Friday 2 September 2016

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Good morning. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet, the Mouheneenner People, and pay respect to their elders, past and present.

Professor Susan Dodds, President of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the University of New South Wales;

Professor Noel Frankham, our host, Interim Dean of the University of Tasmania College of the Arts;

Professor Adam Shoemaker, the incoming Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University;

Pro Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Executive Deans, Associate Deans, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am grateful to DASSH for once again inviting me to address your annual conference.

When I last spoke to you, in 2014, higher education in Australia had been thrown into crisis by the Abbott Government’s plan to cut funding for student places and deregulate fees.

Since then the Prime Minister and the Education Minister have changed but the essentials of the plan remain. Implementation has merely been postponed: the crisis is unresolved.

My own portfolio has changed, too. I am no longer responsible for undergraduate teaching and learning.

But as Shadow Minister for Research I retain responsibility for university research policy, including in the humanities and social sciences, and for the Australian Research Council.

The Government has not announced a radical overhaul of research funding as it has for undergraduate teaching.

But the terms of reference of the Watt review showed us what they have in mind, and the report of that review reflects their broad approach to research: an approach that the Government has already manifested with regard to CSIRO.

Put simply, the Government’s narrow preference is for research that turns a quick dollar.

This over-emphasis on commercialisation has grave implications for any kind of basic research, in the humanities and social sciences as well as in the natural sciences.

I will have more to say on this later, but first I wish to refer to an issue affecting your own disciplines directly.

Two weeks ago a report was published in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, under the headline “High degree of craziness” and the subhead “Millions for bizarre arty study projects”.

The article held up for ridicule a series of grants for academic research projects that critics declared to be “obscure and absurd”.

All of the supposedly scandalous allocations of public funds were the result of the Australian Research Council’s peer-reviewed process for grant applications.

That did not prevent the newspaper from indulging in some philistine fun at the grant recipients’ expense, with entirely predictable outrage from familiar sources, and the usual calls to spend every research dollar on finding cures for disease and economic silver bullets.

None of this is new to you, of course. Nor is it new to me. You have been here before – and I have stood with you.

I want to tell you at the outset this morning that Labor continues to stand with you.

Labor recognises the validity of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Labor understands the importance of fundamental research.

And Labor appreciates the primacy of peer review, rejecting the suggestion that right-wing commentators know better than the experts.

Taking aim at the annual list of ARC grants has become standard tabloid newspaper fare, compiled according to a familiar formula.

They typically zoom in on project titles, without any reference even to the project synopses.

Ignoring context, these attacks only work because they are written in ignorance.

Unfortunately these kneejerk appeals to anti-intellectualism sometimes engage the interest of certain politicians.

Regrettably this was one of those times.

The Education Minister, Senator Birmingham, sought refuge in the reassurance that humanities research made up only seven per cent of ARC grants, and implying that it does not represent value for money.

Let us be clear: he has thrown your disciplines under the bus.

The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, was less guarded. Asked by the Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley how the ARC could justify its grants in the front bar of a pub, he replied:

It’s a fair point, Ray. 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”.

To be fair, there has been no talk of grants being vetoed this time. Most of you will remember the disgraceful events of 2004 and 2005, when Minister Nelson vetoed a number of projects that had been recommended for funding through the rigorous ARC peer review process.

The so-called “Nelson Nine” had attracted the derisive attention of Andrew Bolt, and the then minister justified his actions in much the same terms as Mr Morrison used:

I have to look the average Australian in the eye, who is a truck driver or a gas fitter or works in a shop or a policeman or a nurse, and I have to assure them that every last dollar … that we’ll be putting in through the ARC is money well invested on research that serves the interest of them, their families and the future of the country. And I’m sad to say that I have not been satisfied in the recent past that all of the research projects put by Australia’s researchers are ones that serve the best interests of Australia.”

As you all known, I am a staunch defender of public accountability, but the implication that that the humanities are inherently misaligned with the public interest is a scandalous misrepresentation of the facts. These smears must be called out and condemned.

I have spoken at an earlier DASSH conference about the lashing I received as minister responsible for the ARC, when I defended the grant to establish the ARC Centre for Excellence for the History of the Emotions, based at the University of Western Australia.

The centre was led by the late Professor Philippa Maddern, a globally distinguished medieval historian.

Andrew Robb, who was then shadow finance minister, was lauded in the media when he decried the $24 million allocated to the history of the emotions project as a waste of public money.

That money should have been spent, he said, on boosting productivity.

An irony I have enjoyed in this debate over the years is the insistence of economically dry politicians and their cheer squads in the think tanks and the right-wing media that these public funds should have been invested in the economy – something they never demand in any other context.

It is a profoundly ill-informed demand, of course, because money spent on research – including basic research, including in the humanities – is an investment in the future.

I am not only speaking of utilitarian gains – though they are there too, if only people like Mr Robb and Mr Bolt were willing to look for them. But they never are.

Mr Robb’s attack on the Centre for the History of the Emotions, for example, ignored the fact that insights from that project are relevant to public health policy.

The research enhances the understanding of the reasons for suicide and community reactions to it, which in turn filled gaps in psychiatric understanding.

Many of you can cite similar examples of research having practical applications, especially in public policy.

But I am not making an argument that any particular research grant must be justified by appeal to application.

On the contrary, I am saying that unless we engage in basic research we will gradually undermine our ability to do applied research.

This applies in the humanities and the sciences alike.

In the natural sciences, until very recently that was taken as a given in public policymaking.

Perhaps the most famous Australian example of pure research resulting in a world-changing application was the development by CSIRO scientists of the technology that makes WiFi possible.

They were astronomers, conducting research into black holes.

Fortunately they were not subject to the constraints of the pub test for grant applications that the Treasurer seems to advocate. If they had been, the world might not have WiFi.

But the present Government’s funding cuts to CSIRO, and their narrow pursuit of commercialisation, show that they simply do not understand the necessity of basic research.

This attitude threatens the humanities and the sciences alike.

The only difference between disciplines in this regard is that tabloid commentators find it easier to make targets of your colleagues by manipulating the prejudices of the uninformed.

That means only that the attacks on the humanities have been going only longer, and in public view.

But from a policy point of view the attack on basic research, and the desire to privilege research that can be quickly commercialised, is just as dire, and just as dangerous in the sciences.

I will always defend the humanities and the sciences in the same terms, because I know that every discipline represented here matters for the same reason that every science matters.

I am speaking now of science in the broadest understanding of the term.

I mean the quest to understand the world and ourselves, through disciplines governed by rigorous methodologies and tested by unsentimental peer review.

Furthering that quest depends as much on the work of researchers in the humanities, arts and social sciences as it does on the work of the natural and technological sciences.

I am sure no one here doubts that.

But we are now in a political context where policy is being shaped by people who do doubt it.

The signs are clear: in the Government’s ham-fisted attempt to turn CSIRO into a glorified consultancy, and in an only slightly more subtle way in the Watt review.

I have no doubt that the members of the review panel conducted their inquiries with as much integrity as the terms of reference allowed them.

But the Government’s endorsement of every recommendation in the report gives the game away.

The Government is determined to reconfigure the research system to entrench commercial outcomes as the primary justification for university research.

The Government believes that this will invigorate the innovation system by forging connections between researchers and industry.

Those connections must be made, of course, but the Government’s narrowness of focus will not do it.

Successful innovation, like successful research, requires deep expertise and a willingness to look beyond immediate applications.

That expertise, and that willingness, are in turn sustained by human institutions and practices that exist beyond short-term commercial justification.

I am thinking of collegial activities on which the development and assessment of quality depend: mentorship, editing journals, peer review and convening conferences.

All these things exist because over time we have developed the capability to do basic research.

It isbecause of that, that we can do applied research too.

To reverse that priority, as the Government wants to do, will be self-defeating, because it will undermine the very systems and skills we need to do applied research successfully.

Labor will continue to reject this myopic vision. Our plan for research policy recognises the contribution of fundamental research, of public-good research, of scholarship in the humanities, creative arts and social sciences, and in the work that scholars and scientists do to keep their disciplines flourishing.

Any restructure of university research arrangements that does not acknowledge all these goals will place the entire national research effort in peril.

You as a sector cannot afford it. The nation cannot afford it. And Labor will join with you in resisting it.

Thank you.


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