Birmingham, Morrison show hostility to humanities research

The terms of reference of the Watt review into research policy clearly articulate the government’s narrow intent and reveal its impoverished understanding of research.


It is an approach that is already manifest with regard to CSIRO.


Put simply, the Liberals’ preference is for publicly funded research that turns a quick private dollar.

This overemphasis on commercialisation has grave implications for basic research in all disciplines.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Scott Morrison also have indicated that they are willing to countenance populist attacks on humanities research in particular.

Two weeks ago, a report was published in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph under the headline “High degree of craziness: millions for bizarre arty study projects”.

The article held up for ridicule a series of supposedly scandalous allocations of public funds.

These were all the result of the Australian Research Council’s rigorous peer-reviewed process for grants, yet the newspaper indulged in philistine fun at the grant recipients’ expense.

The sneers were augmented by predictable outrage from a range of tediously familiar knuckle-draggers, who demanded that every research dollar must be spent on finding cures for disease and economic silver bullets.

Taking aim at ARC grants has become a standard tabloid ritual.

It follows a familiar formula, with reports typically zooming in on project titles without reference to project synopses or context of any kind.

Unfortunately these kneejerk appeals to anti-intellectualism sometimes engage the interest of certain politicians. This was one of those times.

Instead of sticking up for scholarship, Birmingham offered the reassurance that humanities research made up only 7 per cent of ARC grants, implying that it did not represent value for money.

The Treasurer was even less charming. Asked by 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.”

The implication that the humanities are inherently misaligned with the public interest is a scandalous misrepresentation of the facts.

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

Unless we engage in basic research across the board we will completely undermine our capacity for applied research.

The government’s intentions are clear in its 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 the review panel conducted its inquiries with integrity, but the terms of reference rigged the outcome.

The government’s endorsement of every recommendation in the report shows it is determined to entrench commercial outcomes as the primary justification for university research.

The Liberals apparently believe this will invigorate the innovation system by forging connections between researchers and industry.

What the government does not understand is that successful innovation, like successful research, requires deep expertise and a willingness to look beyond immediate applications.

We can do applied research only because we do the fundamentals well.

This is an edited extract from a speech to the annual conference of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities last week.

This Opinion Piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 7 September 2016.

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