University funding suffers from political interference

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Former education minister Simon Birmingham (Image via YouTube)

A number of research grants have been denied as politicians meddle in university funding, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE MODERN GRANT SYSTEM is something to pour scorn upon. Universities, obsessed with the industrial angle of research, have made the cardinal error of assuming that relevance is based on the favours and prowess gained from prestigious grants. The issue as to whether such awards lead to genuine advances in knowledge is never answered. The system of awards and rewards becomes its own aspiration and goal, fed by an industry based more on posture than substance.

Particularly susceptible to this problem are the humanities, forever scolded for being irrelevant to both the utilitarian line and the budgetary specialist, supposedly alien to the modern technological state. In recent decades, humanities studies in universities have desperately sought out an erroneous form of relevance, padding studies with pseudo-science in an effort to buy relevance. Behavioural studies on sexual and domestic violence, for instance, provide an excuse for social scientists to join arms with their hard science brothers and sisters, hammering out data sets and interviews in the vain hope that some inner truth might be unveiled.

Given these adulterations in the tertiary system, it is unsurprising that higher-ups have also decided to meddle and add their own informal despoliations. Like university managers, politicians make the mistake of assuming that an appointment grants them qualifications and inner knowledge. In the Australian context, there is no grander poohbah of nuisance than the Minister for Education, a post previously held by Senator Simon Birmingham. Recently, it transpired in the estimates of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee that Birmingham took it upon himself to assess and dismiss the merits of various projects for government funding through the Australian Research Council totalling $4.2 million.

Projects placed on the rejection pile included a La Trobe University project titled Writing the Struggle for Sioux and U.S. Modernity ($926,372), The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music from Macquarie University ($764,744) and an ANU proposal, Price, Metals and Materials in the Global Exchange ($391,574).

In a response to Labor Senator Kim Carr’s accusation at this ‘unprecedented’ interference ‘with Australia’s peer review system’, Birmingham took to the bench of high judgment: 


The problem here is that Birmingham has no verifiable measured way to explain why the refusal was made. (It is questionable whether his understanding might have crawled out of a dark shadow to grasp such terms as post-orientalist, let alone anything associated with the historical significance of the Strait of Gibraltar.)

Two recipients, not of A.R.C. funding but Birmingham’s purported meddling in last year’s round, duly reflected. The project of Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester titled Greening Media Sport: The Communication of Environmental Issues and Sustainability in Professional Sport was one of the 11 projects rejected by the office of the minister. They cite, all too predictably, the grounds deemed meritorious: assisting Australia, for instance, to adapt ‘in the face of serious ecological challenges’ and ‘capitalise on the fact that it is a sporting nation’.

The inevitable question surfaces — one cannot help but wonder, did the minister or any of his staff read our application or any of the other ten he chose to reject? (In this case, both prove charmingly naïve.) This leads the two to argue for transparency, that ‘the reasons for rejection should be communicated clearly to researchers and their universities.’

Various grounds of indignation can be cited. Researchers will feel slighted for not chalking up points for the next round — grant awards constitute the manure for further grants. Anxiety will be felt when it comes to promotion rounds, with managers straining to see, less the merit of knowledge than the ticked boxes of previous approvals. Universities and institutions care less about the personal integrity of the researcher than the way in which that researcher advances the brand name. 

The idea of censorship will creep up with menace, even if there is often a confusion between a worthless project floated on hot air deemed acceptable to the trendy fashionistas, or a worthy idea deserving funding that falls by the wayside. Very often, certain academic projects deserve unceremonious binning, but in a world where the gatekeepers play with monies that are not theirs – the taxpayers' no less – sloppiness and arbitrariness are assured.  

Critical in the Birmingham context is the overt, self-directed meddling that removes the role of academic expertise and supplants it with personal, political preference, or “political interference” that “undermines confidence and trust”, to quote the President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Joy Damousi.

Current Education Minister Dan Tehan has decided to stake his own play on the issue, suggesting that taxpayer monies, in order to be dispersed to researchers, must pass ‘a national interest’.

“We want to make sure that what the academics put forward as part of their research proposals will benefit Australia over the coming years.” 

Such vague applications are hopeless exercises in navel-gazing and tend to succumb to the priorities of a philistine. What constitutes “benefit” to the Australian public is a test that is susceptible to naked manipulation and political trashing.

Nobel Prize laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty expressed relevant scepticism in this regard. 

What matters here is the elimination of personal vice and preference, notably from a minister whose credentials in assessing projects might well be missing. In most instances, this would be the rule, rather than the exception. But a state of affairs obsessed by matters of national interest will subordinate the vast world of insightful research to the short-sighted caprice of the political classes.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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