There is an old saying in politics that governments never undertake a review unless they already know what it will deliver. On the evidence, it is perfectly clear that the Watt review of research policy and funding arrange­ments was commissioned on that basis. The government’s complete endorsement of every recommendation is a bit of a giveaway.


No doubt there were vigorous debates within the panel, but they never had a chance: the terms of reference denied its members the opportunity to give full expression to their depth and range of experience, instead closely guiding the review’s energies along a narrow path. In the end, they had little choice but to deliver a proposed reconfiguration of the research system that aligns perfectly with the government’s ideology.

That would not be a problem if this government only understood the role of university research in the innovation system, but it patently does not. The Liberals’ ideological commitments blinker their vision, focusing their narrow gaze only on immediate commercial opportunity. That activity is not unimportant, but such a limited focus on short-term commercial application renders invisible most of the successful and critical research that takes place.


Indeed, even research transfer to market depends significantly on other aspects of the research ecosystem in order to thrive — aspects that will languish under the government’s new regime. Ironically, by reconfiguring the entire research support system to concentrate disproportionately on commercialisation and application, the Liberals will not only harm the greater part of our national research enterprise, they will also undermine the conditions of possibility of the one component they do value.


The Liberals’ conviction that commercial outcomes are the raison d’etre of university research — and that you can achieve them by a adopting a point-to-point production line approach — is exemplary of their innovation theory, dreamed up in splendid isolation from the rather more fluid reality of how research is actually conducted.


Because any study of innovation and of the history of science and research will tell you that discovery is incremental and idiosyncratic; empirical and intuitive; methodical and serendipitous; logical and analogical. It requires deep expertise, well beyond immediate application; the capacity to adapt insights metaphorically from foreign disciplines and remote parts of life; the humility to learn from students, children, story­tellers, rivals, and your own failures.


Genuine innovation is like finding your way through a dark, unfamiliar room: you cannot see where you are going by looking straight ahead, you need to come at things obliquely, using your peripheral vision and all your other senses, trusting your gut, willing to take a few on the shins on the way through.


Ask anyone who has made a noted discovery or successfully launched a product, and you will find these elements within their version of this story.


Yet nothing in the government’s intentions for research shows any understanding of this: indeed, its literalist, plodding, colour-by-numbers conception of how research is conceived, conducted and taken to market is about as antagonistic to innovation as you could imagine.


The Watt review has its redeeming features, but the general thrust of the report the government solicited is typical of its approach to science and research overall. It echoes the spirit of the Liberals’ ban on public-good outcomes from the Co-operative Research Centre program, and its attempts to transform CSIRO into a glorified consultancy.


In the light of Malcolm Turnbull’s $50 billion tax gift to corporates, no one should be surprised by the government’s pursuit of a research commercialisation agenda that amounts to a public subsidy to the big end of town.


The Liberals become exceedingly agitated about the prospect of private benefit from public subsidy when the beneficiary is the working-class university graduate, but they’re entirely relaxed when the beneficiary is big business. The perversion of the research system as a whole is an unacceptable price for the nation to pay when the government contorts the arrangements for preferment of its courtiers.


Among the many things Einstein didn’t quite say is, “Not everything that counts can be counted.” Yet the government’s determination to use existing data to inform its assessment of metrics will occlude from view — and from funding — activities that are essential to the health of the research system, and indeed to the operation of the regime itself.


Where is the support, for instance, to preserve the collegial activities on which the development and assessment of quality are so dependent — activities such as editing journals, peer review, mentorship, convening conferences and the like?


In a neoliberal incentive-based regime, the absence of support for these vital contributions is a signal to universities to eliminate them. The narrowing of legitimated activities is deeply corrosive to the research enterprise broadly: absurdly, it is also self-damaging to the ­regime.


Einstein is also misattributed the truism, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.” It captures something of the indefinable nature of research as it is actually done, but of course this presents challenges for the management and particularly the funding of research. The allocation of public funds is a serious business, and “Trust me, I have a PhD” is nowhere near enough assurance on the allocation of precious public expenditures.


But throwing the baby out with the bathwater is no solution to that challenge. Labor’s plan for research policy recognises the contribution of fundamental research, of non-commercial public-good research, of scholarship in the humanities and creative arts, of the work academics and scientists undertake to keep their disciplines operating.


Any reform of university research arrangements that fails to support these activities imperils our national research effort — including, ironically, the very commercial applications that the Liberals value to the exclusion of all else.

This Opinion Piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 17 August 2016.

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