Senator Kim Carr has been around forever, and knows what questions to ask in Senate Estimates. And yesterday he got the Australian Research Council to reveal that, last year, then education minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 humanities grant recommendations. So far as we know, this hasn’t happened since Brendan Nelson was minister in the middle of the last decade (Gideon Haigh tells that story well).
As with the Nelson intervention, Birmingham’s decision has prompted outrage. The Australian Academy of the Humanities says that “this interference is entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry.”
Birmingham’s response is, in effect, that the rejected projects are not worth funding. On Twitter, he says “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.'”
He could have picked several other examples: “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms”, “music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city” or “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950”.
But that Australian taxpayers were probably not going to get value for money from these very niche projects is not the same as an argument for rejecting an ARC recommendation.
The basic case against Birmingham’s decision is not that these projects were necessarily worthwhile from a taxpayer perspective, but that it is better to stick to principles and systems that overall serve us well, even if sometimes they lead to results we don’t like.
In this case the principle is academic freedom, and the system is the ARC project selection process.
Part of academic freedom is academics choosing which research topics to pursue. Why might this be better than government making research decisions? One reason is that academics will, on average, know much more than politicians or bureaucrats about which lines of inquiry are likely to be most worth pursuing. With academic freedom, we draw on the vast knowledge academics have of their disciplines.
Another reason is motivational. On average, academics are likely to work better on self-directed research than on somebody else’s idea.
The ARC grant process is an attempt to improve university research quality while keeping the benefits of academic freedom. Its original funding was a ‘clawback’ from block grant funding that universities could spend as they chose, possibly on research that wasn’t very good (which is why we still have proposals to strip away remaining block grant funding). The ARC promotes research excellence through competition, but uses academics to decide which projects best meet its criteria.
By respecting academic freedom and drawing on academic expertise, the ARC process is generally seen as a fair one that uses relevant grounds to choose between submissions. The process has a legitimacy that a more politicised process of ministerial choice would lack.
Overall, this system has served Australia well. The indicators reported in Grattan’s Mapping Australian higher education publication show that Australia is a strong global performer in university research.
Another reason for academic freedom is more negative – that powerful states need to be counter-balanced by a strong civil society. Although in Australia most universities were created by state governments, the idea that they are also independent civil society institutions is also strong. University autonomy is part of the small-c constitution of Australia. We don’t want academics to think that they need political approval for their research projects.
From the government’s perspective, there are also political advantages in allowing academics and universities their freedom. Odd decisions and poor outcomes can all be blamed on them. But by intervening and rejecting some projects, Birmingham was impliedly taking responsibility for all the others. Some of these also seem rather niche: “A panel study of Kobe women’s interview discourse”, or “Early modern women and the poetry of complaint, 1540-1660”. It is better to just say that the funded projects were determined by an independent process than to have to explain why one is more deserving than another.
Research policy should be, and is, regularly reviewed to see how it is going. But it is hard to imagine that ministers micromanaging the choice of research projects is ever going to be part of a good system.