Time to End the Valorisation of Ignorance

Yesterday in Federal Parliament the MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, gave a speech in which he stated that there should be no funding for research that does not either find a cure for a disease, ”improve our prosperity” or “improve our lifestyles”. The speech rested on mocking research projects that have gone ahead at Australian universities in the last few years under independent, peer-reviewed processes standard the world over. Here is an excerpt:

A cool $150,000 went into a study of the impact of locally mined silver to make coins in Athens between the years 550 BC and 480 BC. In another example, a cool $200,000 went to determine what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media. I would suggest that these are not the type of funding projects that the government should be funding.

Another little one here, which I am sure might be a favourite of many sitting on the opposition side, is a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism—$60,000. Another one here is $180,000 for a study rethinking the history of Soviet Stalinism to provide a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of Stalin’s Russia. We know the complexities—obviously, Stalin must have been a good bloke who was misunderstood. We need $180,000 to find that out.

In another example, $210,000 was spent on a study of how early-modern women’s writing was produced and circulated. And $196,476 was spent on a study of trade unions in Indonesia to document and analyse unionist strategies for the upcoming Indonesian election. Is this really what the Australian taxpayer should be funding, instead of medical research, instead of research to make our nation more competitive?

This is a little bewdy, too: $164,000 for a study of magical spells and rituals from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD to achieve success in personal relations—a most important expenditure! In another one: $370,000 for a study to find whether physiological plasticity of individuals renders populations resilient to climate change. It goes on: $265,000 for a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD. In another example, $330,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent under the previous Labor government to explore the music-cultural identity and related socioeconomic dilemmas of remote South Sea nomads vis-a-vis the Muslim Malays in the industrialising Riau Islands.

Under the previous Labor government $253,000 of taxpayers’ money also went to study archaeology in the Central Caucuses. And $444,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent to study a history of advertising industry practices in Australia between 1959 and 1989. Isn’t that the type of study that would be better funded by the advertising industry than by taxpayers? Another example is a study of official histories produced by humanists in the courts and chanceries of Renaissance Italy during the 15th century.

There has been too much under-reaction to what the government is advocating, so let me spell it out: if these grants shouldn’t happen then our universities shouldn’t have Arts faculties. If this use of resources is a waste then our universities should be downgraded to vocational training centres, all academics not working in medicine or technology should lose their jobs, and Australia can kiss goodbye to the income we get selling our education overseas, because people from other parts of the world won’t pay huge amounts of money to travel here for a qualification from an institution that can’t command international respect.

Kelly keeps referring to making Australia competitive, so let’s talk about that. Education is a product; you can’t sell it if what you are producing isn’t any good. The way the world judges whether you are capable of offering a good education is by looking at the quality of the research you publish. Not the immediate practical usefulness of the topic, the quality of the scholarship. If we stop participating in the system of higher learning engaged in by the rest of the world, it will take no time for us to have no standing in the international higher education scene. Universities function as a world-wide community, and they are wildly competitive. You fall behind, you disappear. Not publishing research across the breadth of potential fields of knowledge is to fall behind. If you want any hope of being competitive in education, you can’t limit your research to a few restricted areas.

You can’t publish without doing research, and no publications, no credibility. This is how the world measures whether people doing higher level intellectual work are any good or not. If our academics can’t prove they are good at what they do, no one will pay to come to their institutions to study under their guidance. People come to university to learn from experts. Experts carry out research. Grants pay their wages while they do. It is not enough for a university to only have experts in the narrow fields that sell best to overseas students. Universities are judged on the full breadth of what they produce, an institution that no longer publishes in philosophy, history or literature will not be seen as a serious site of intellectual activity. Our brand in the marketplace for that immensely valuable product, education, will be trashed.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: if you don’t believe “a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism” or “a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD” should be funded, then you don’t believe philosophy departments should exist, because that’s what they do. If you don’t believe “a study of how early-modern women’s writing was produced and circulated” should be funded, then you don’t believe history and literature departments should exist. The only end game here is to shut down all philosophy, history, fine and performing arts, and literature departments, and probably most of sociology, psychology and political science too.

It’s easy to look at these figures as some kind of disembodied amount paid for the topic, like buying a book. That’s not what they are. The money tagged in those grants goes almost entirely on the salary of the person doing the research. The money covers some expenses like research trips and organising conferences, but the bulk of it is the wage of the scholar, sometimes also research assistants. A $200,000 grant is three years of salary for an academic who is also writing, publishing, speaking, and when they are not engaged on a full-time research project, teaching. Each of those grants Kelly lists represents several jobs. You cancel the grant, your scholar goes overseas, or leaves higher education for a job below their skill level, or is unemployed. Less work, less teaching, fewer peripheral jobs, the sector shrinks, Australia has fewer skilled workers.

The insult to the electorate is that Kelly assumes the titles of previously funded projects are a weapon in his arsenal. He assumes anyone hearing them will join him in mocking their worth. A person with even a cursory understanding of what is going on when research grants are allocated will be nothing but disgusted at his sly, shock-jock misrepresentations that show he believes Australians to be too parochial to comprehend that there could be “complexity” worth understanding in Stalin’s Russia. A person of any reflection will see a study of “archaeology in the Central Caucuses” and think how great it is that Australia has players in a field as competitive as archeology. They will see “a study of official histories produced by humanists in the courts and chanceries of Renaissance Italy during the 15th century”, and be impressed that we have moved on from the cultural cringe enough to know we have scholars who can contribute to a major field in European history. Kelly counts on us being so enamoured with ignorance that we can’t even see value in knowing “what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media”.

There is plenty to get angry about in the contempt the government is showing for this country’s smartest and most committed people, not to mention the contempt for the broader idea of there being value in the life of the mind. But we shouldn’t miss noticing the extremity of the contempt they are showing to every single Australian out there, even those with no personal stakes in the university system. Abbott, Pyne and Kelly have all assumed that Australians are too stupid and ignorant to understand the value of this country continuing as part of the intellectual world. They assume we will scoff at the notion that work on thought and culture is needed if a country is to thrive. They think we will agree with them that we shouldn’t aim to be a part of the wider world’s systems of pursuing knowledge. I am going to choose to believe that they have grievously misjudged us.

Four of Shakespeare's original folios laid in a line.

Shakespeare’s folios held by the State Library of NSW, which are not worth studying because it won’t improve our ‘lifestyle’

Categories: economics, education, ethics & philosophy, history, parties and factions, Sociology

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49 replies

  1. – It’s a valid issue to raise: when public money is at stake – taxpayer’s money, that is taken from workers all around Australia, with the undertaking that it will be spent carefully on worthwhile projects that will make every Australian better off – then rigorous scrutiny ought to be expected.
    – It’s being raised in a regrettable way, ie, much in the same way a tabloid columnist would pick out the ‘best’ of the ‘worst’ examples in order to cause anger in his audience. But perhaps that points out that Craig Kelly is doing this largely for the benefit of his voters: not surprising that a politician should go for a populist position. I don’t think it will ever become policy on the part of the Liberal Party.
    – It is surely inevitable that at some point a large publicly-funded institution should encounter criticism of this sort: and educational institutions, especially publicly-funded educational institutions of all sorts have been subject to the whims of governments-in-power for a long, long time. Short of a solution like privatisation, this won’t change.
    – It’s unfortunate Kelly’s mugging for the populist-tabloid vote. Because this is an issue which probably ought to be discussed: academics are pressured to publish too much, too quickly, and these publications may often be of poor quality. It’s worthwhile questioning the process by which academic research is done and the material it produces, including the grants system. Perhaps a sensible discussion about this could be had some time.
    My two cents.

  2. What’s happening here is not scrutiny. Scrutiny is not someone who knows nothing about a subject appointing themselves arbiter of whether or not it is a worthwhile pursuit.

    I don’t think it will ever become policy on the part of the Liberal Party.

    It IS becoming policy on the part of the Liberal Party right now. That’s what the amendment that the Minister was speaking to is for.

    publicly-funded educational institutions of all sorts have been subject to the whims of governments-in-power for a long, long time.

    Yes, and that’s bad and wrong and worth fighting, because otherwise we are a weak and petty people. What changes is the degree to which the public allows it to occur. The degree occurring right now is outrageous.
    The issues you raise in your final paragraph bear no relationship to the issues in play. In fact, they are the criticisms we typically hear from academics themselves, of problems that are exacerbated by attitudes like the government’s, demanding that all research demonstrate a concrete value immediately.

  3. It IS becoming policy on the part of the Liberal Party right now. That’s what the amendment that the Minister was speaking to is for.

    Here’s some concrete numbers, although I can’t tell if they’re the ones specifically introduced by Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013 to which Kelly was speaking:

    Over four years, $61m in Australian Research Council Linkage money will be redirected, as well as $42m in Linkage funds, according to today’s mid-year economic statement.
    In Opposition, the Coalition targeted as “ridiculous” a handful of grants in the humanities and social sciences, and said $103m in ARC funds would be redirected to medical research.

    You can see the figures being adjusted on page 109 of the mid-year economic outlook report. (The figures against “Australian Research Council — redirection” do indeed add up to $103 million.)
    So it’s certainly not empty words. If I’m reading the ARC’s own budget for 2013–2014 correctly (see page 12 for where I am sourcing these figures), Discovery funds total about $560 million and Linkage $344 million this year. This is for all fields, so humanities, social sciences, sciences, etc; medical science would already consume a fair fraction of that so a reallocation of $103 million is quite a significant portion of ARC funding. Kelly is not idly puffing soundbites out here.

  4. Actually, the above was unintentionally misleading, my apologies. The ARC figures given are the yearly budget, the $103 million is however being reallocated over several years. Per year, the reallocation figure is about $30 million ($15.8 million in this half-year).

  5. Actually, I think he’s precisely wrong. Research that has near-future direct practical application, is probably the kind of research least in need of government-funding.
    In other words, he’s suggesting we should ONLY fund the one kind of science that we could possibly get away with funding less, because it might be profitable for private enterprise to do so themselves.

  6. I keep waiting for someone like him to ask exactly what we get out of politician’s “study trips”, and whether it was really worth $50,000 to have some Minister report that Indonesia has an economy.
    I’m with Gunnar in many ways – the sort of research that needs government funding is *exactly* the stuff that has no commercial return. Whether that be because it leads to a better understanding of how groups of people work (history, literature, economics, feminist studies) or how the non-human world works (biology, physics, mathematics). Or both, I suppose, with geography and philosophy.
    But I studied engineering, and an awful lot of what we did had no immediate practical application. That’s why the university did it, rather than industry. Sometimes useful things fall out (the CSIRO wifi patent, for example), but most of the time they don’t (the CSIRO has bred innumerable plant varieties that can’t be grown profitably, for example).
    So yes, you fund research because that way the smart people think up new things rather than going off and driving forklifts or whatever. But there, I think, is the problem. Reactionaries like many in the Liberal Party fear new things, so they’re very sensibly acting to reduce the supply of same.
    Fortunately we have a globalised world, and they can’t do that everywhere.

  7. Okay, multi-part comment here. Part 1:
    I’d beg to differ with Mr Kelly on certain matters. I think that “what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media” is actually a very important topic for study, given the popular media are, as the name implies, popular. As in, lots of people watch them, lots of people use them, and lots of people presumably learn a lot about love, sex and relationships from them. So it’s probably worthwhile to know not only to what extent our views and perspectives on love, sex and relationships are being shaped by the (largely foreign-created) popular media, and also what kinds of content we’re learning on these rather cruicial topics.
    Before anyone turns around and says “well, surely we can generalise from studies elsewhere”, let me point out that the big two foreign contributors to Australian culture are the United States of America (with whom we share a language, but not an education system, a political system, a health system, a code of law, or many other major points of cultural commonality -we differ from the USA to a much greater extent than we are similar to them) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (with whom we have several similarities, but with whom we also broke politically and to a large degree culturally during the course of the twentieth century). There are enough differences between Australian culture and the cultures of both the USA and the UK for us to need to study our own culture – and that’s leaving out a lot of major geographical and climatic differences (both of those other nations being based largely in much cooler climates than ours, and both being located in the northern hemisphere).
    Or maybe Mr Kelly believes we should be extrapolating this sort of information from studies of our Indonesian neighbours instead?

  8. Part 2:
    By the way: “$370,000 for a study to find whether physiological plasticity of individuals renders populations resilient to climate change” probably counts as medical research, Mr Kelly. Physiology is the study of the normal functioning of living organisms – it’s about how bodies work. What that study is ultimately looking into, when it comes right down to it, is whether a large enough gene pool would survive a climate change event to be able to sustain a breeding population of humans here in Australia. We know climate change is happening (do have yourselves a merry little Christmas over there in the Eastern States; we here in WA will be enjoying the first Christmas day in years where it hasn’t hit forty), but what we don’t know is how people’s bodies adapt to this change – or even whether they do.

  9. Part 3:
    But all of this misses the fundamental point of funding any research at all. The point of funding research, ideally speaking, is to improve the knowledge of the entire world. It’s a global good. Scientific research, and indeed any research, has been compared to filling in a crossword puzzle – you do the bits that are easy first, then you use what you know now to try and fill in the responses to other clues. It all builds together. And what we’re starting to discover, as we incorporate more and more knowledge into the global corpus, is that even things which seem as esoteric and “pointless” as “a study of magical spells and rituals from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD to achieve success in personal relations” have relevance to how we live in society today. It seems likely people back in the era from 200BCE to 500CE weren’t too much different to people now – we all want to be loved, we all want to do well. So the ways people used “magic spells and rituals” over that seven hundred year period probably won’t differ too much from the ways we use things like motivational phrases, mantras, self-talk and so on in the present day. Success in personal relationships is something which still eludes a lot of people even today – by chasing down the history of these things, and finding the things which worked back then, and more importantly, why they worked back then, we have a chance of finding something which will work today, and will make a lot of people a lot happier.
    (Why is personal happiness important? Well, apart from the obvious – it’s happiness, why wouldn’t it be important? – happy people are often more productive economically).

  10. Part 4 (last part):
    As for “a history of advertising industry practices in Australia between 1959 and 1989. Isn’t that the type of study that would be better funded by the advertising industry than by taxpayers?” – well, yes. But what kind of history does the advertising industry want to fund? I think you’ll find they want a hagiography, rather than any kind of critical history which might point out not only what the advertising industry did right, but what they did wrong as well. If we spend taxpayer funds on this, we’re more likely to get the sort of history which examines both the strengths and the weaknesses of the advertising industry; a history which doesn’t just offer empty flattery. That’s a more useful history than the one the advertising industry is likely to fund, let’s be honest.
    Again, we’re not just doing this for Australia. We’re doing it for everyone.

  11. Kelly seems to be suggesting that any old idea that someone comes up with gets funded. He obviously has no idea how competitive these grants are and how much time would have gone into preparing the applications.

  12. A quick note in one of my small working windows to say: my internet is playing sillybuggers, so my apologies to anyone who finds themselves stuck in the mod queue. I will check it whenever my connection chooses to connect me.

  13. How does better understanding ourselves and our culture not improve our lifestyle? And what does he mean by that anyway? That we all get more gadgets? That we get to go to the beach more often?

  14. Well duh! Understand our culture, or what the popular media tells us about sex makes our lives much, much worse, since we might actually get worried that those wonderful football people might actually be doing a bad thing to women who don’t deserve it. Thinking hurts.

  15. @Megpie – Yes, yes yes and yes! 😛 Love all your takedowns. This is disgusting. I hate how conservatives are like ‘it’s not useful’.. knowledge is knowledge and is useful. and as Mindy said – these grants are bloody hard to get! How dare he imply that this is a simple process. There is massive scrutiny in place *already*

  16. Great post. And horrible comments by the Member for Hughes. This commitment to smallness of mind is truly dispiriting.

  17. I’m pretty sure that the Catholic church was violently opposed to the translation of the bible from Latin to the more commonly spoken languages to keep the masses ignorant and under thrall to the established hierarchy.

  18. Taking a deep breath, this speech is exactly the sort of narrow-minded mockery that we can come to expect more and more during the course of this Parliament. After the appointment of a former staffer at the Institute of Public Affairs as the new Human Rights Commissioner, I bothered to read some of the IPA website. These are right wing idealogues. The alarming thing about that is that they clearly have a direct line to and/or from the Liberal Party because their published wish list of 75 radical policies is being put into effect, one after the other.
    Cut and paste this link to read the list. http://ipa.org.au/publications/2080/be-like-gough-75-radical-ideas-to-transform-australia
    An interesting irony is that the free market hero, Adam Smith, said that Government has a role in funding things that business will not fund – such as research like the ones Mr Kelly took time to mock. But let’s not trouble ourselves with logical argument here. We are not dealing with logical people. They are angry and resentful, favouring their friends and holding those who disagree with them in contempt. This is a very frightening time in Australia’s political life. We, as Citizens, need to stay alert to prevent the demolition of many of the things that we might hold as precious: the environment, education, the arts, the social safety net, socialised medicine and other expressions of care for those less able to take care of themselves.

  19. While i think megpie above has made great arguments more articulately than i could, i have something i would like to add here.
    This is not an attack on the humanities alone, all future social science and science based research that is judged to not be applied research, and thus not ‘useful’ enough, is also in an increasingly precarious place. The best illustration of this is what has happened to political science (my discipline) in the USA the last couple of years. congress passed a Bill to limit all political science National Science Foundation funding unless it could demonstrate relevance to national security or the economy. For an overview including the mobilisation of a response from political scientists, see a recent article in Nature http://www.nature.com/news/social-scientists-hit-back-at-grant-rules-1.14151

  20. These fools – they’re too stupid to be paid up fascists – don’t even see that all those accountants and doctors and lawyers and mining engineers often use their spare income to do things like … install home cinemas to watch movies (like Gladiator – a very popular bloke’s movie) and get Foxtel subscriptions for the endless (and admittedly poor quality) History Channel docos on Romans, Hitler, and Stalin.
    No-one takes up accountancy as a hobby.
    Where people spend their leisure time and money is pretty indicative of what they value.

  21. BTW, this is what a real cancer doctor thinks of such research projects the barbarian Kelly despises:


  22. HEAR HEAR!

    • I’ve been trying to think of an appropriately erudite response, but I can’t do better than Jo’s. Great post, Orlando. HEAR HEAR!

  23. Even if you share Kelly’s view that knowledge is only valuable if it can be immediately of value to the marketplace, he still relies upon a false belief that there is a very linear relationship between research direction and research outcome. In fact, knowledge and innovation are not produced like cardboard boxes in a factory with simple, predictable inputs on a conveyor belt producing simple, profit-making inventions out the other end.
    And unlike many other product markets, information lacks transparency. You have to know some information in a particular field in order to evaluate the value of other information in that field. This is why it is difficult to evaluate research grants in fields where one has never studied.
    Kelly has a definite bias against the arts but I would hate for him to have seen the topic of my own economics thesis. I suspect he would have found it far too abstract.
    And if Kelly is pro-competitive markets, generally, he should be especially protective of publicly funded research because it is well known that government policies that rely upon privately funded research actually discourage innovation and invention rather than encourage it, because of monopoly incentives for private enterprise.

  24. Interesting to note that a major industry and research facility in Kelly’s electorate is the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor (listed on his MP homepage). Given that having a nuclear reactor doing basic research doesn’t enhance the prosperity or lifestyle of his constituents, I wonder if he will call for it to be defunded?

  25. Dog whistlers whistling dogs.
    Can Mr Kelly explain to the taxpayers how the expenditure of $340,128.62 (excluding his salary, which takes it over half a million) for his period in parliament produced:
    “a cure for a disease, improve(d) our prosperity or improve(d) our lifestyles”?

    Time for him to be de-funded?

  26. I agree vigourously with most of the comments above.
    I want to add as someone who’s hung around biomedical research, that there was already an unpleasant tendency in biomedical research grants to claim that whatever research was being sought funding for, would ultimately cure cancer or some such nonsense. (Because these grants are meant to be for advancing fundamental understanding, not just testing and marketing a drug with known potential.)
    Politicians clearly have a big problem with the fundamental nature of what research and scholarship are; as the saying goes “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research”. But that kind of investigation is a necessary precursor to all the rest. The payoffs in terms of new treatments (or new technology, or countering climate change or whatever) will never happen if knowledge stays fixed.

  27. I’m not surprised Tony’s mob have started in on higher education. They’re against education of other people in general: the thought of searching for knowledge as a good in itself must make them lie awake twitching at night.
    The thing I hate the most is: Kelly’s speech is meant to strike a chord with the people who have had no access to higher education and prompt them to support the government in ensuring their children and grandchildren also never do.
    We need a Totally Esoteric Thread right now.

  28. Orlando, you are super great.
    You know, a fair chunk of my thesis involved critical examinations of Australian government processes. I expect similar projects won’t be viewed as lifestyle-improving in the view of the present federal government, but that kind of knowledge is pretty vital if the rest of us are going to be able to rigorously critique any moves made to, ah, “improve” our lifestyles.

  29. My entire Australian academic career thus far has been paid for by ARC grants to fund my esotoric humanities knowledge-creation activities (and I just got a new one that starts next year for three years! And it was signed off my a Liberal politician!). So, I literally wouldn’t be in this country if this type of research was not funded, and tbh, I probably won’t want to be if it isn’t (sadly).
    What the Liberal pols seem to be missing on this is that knowledge-making is both BIG business and makes your nation powerful. My giving over the knowledge-making to the UK or US (or whoever else), you are effectively saying that you accept you are not a worldplayer; you’re happy to be a second-rate nation who takes its priorities from the rest of the world (and if your specific needs aren’t in those priorities – tough). I’d have thought the Liberals were more nationalistic than that?

  30. One could, of course, come up with a similar list of ‘useless’ research funded by Liberal governments. Until the recent past, such governments respect the ability of the Australian Research Council to fund peer-reviewed research on its merits. However, they do have form – Brendan Nelson when Minister for Higher Education in 2007/8 refused to fund a small number of projects which the ARC’s process had chosen to fund, on the grounds that they were not in the national interest. While the titles of these projects were never made public, I am in a position to know that some of them were projects on gender and sexuality and would have been undertaken by some of the most eminent researchers in the country. There was a bit of fuss by the Vice-Chancellors at the time, but it really didn’t come to anything. This time, they seem to have decided that anything other than perhaps the most narrowly Australian versions of humanities research is not worthy of funding. There is no reason to think that they won’t follow through. I for one, don’t think I’ll be employed past the middle of next year once they gain control of the Senate. This is dog-whistle politics on a par with the way they are treating asylum seekers.
    I really think that we need to organise a day of general protest against this government, to highlight every bloody awful racist, homophobic, anti-cultural wrecking ball policy they are enacting. Our country is a whole lot better than this.

  31. It is the humanities subjects, old as human society its self that teach tolerance, understanding between cultures, the truth about events that impact on all of us as a human society. Even earlier scientific research was motivated by a thirst for knowledge. In an ever shrinking world if these values are discarded we can forget about anything else the university teaches us, we will have descended into barbarism, let technology try and save us from that.

  32. This is an argument for a university system funded more by philanthropy and less by government except for specific research contracts.

  33. @Hildy. I’m not sure that would help. Then researchers would be subject to the agenda of the philanthropists. The point is that the government is supposed to provide the money, but rely on experts (the ARC) to decide which projects are most useful and/or worthy of funding.

  34. I don’t see the argument, Hildy. The vagaries of philanthropy, as well as the tendency of individuals to want stuff in return for outlay, make it a terrible model for a system upon which people are supposed to organise their lives. Once more I want to point out that the money in these grants represents jobs. Do you really want the country’s best thinkers and writers to depend for their living on private donations and whim? They won’t stay in this country for that.

  35. The endowment of chairs, and other forms of endowment at universities, creates jobs. These are not ‘whim’ – a university with a reasonably sized endowment is able to create an internal grant system.
    @angharad, the problem with the ARC process is the distribution of money between fields. who is to say whether 500,000 to a philosophy research group is better spent than 500,000 to a quantum physics research group?
    with private donations, the opinions of western suburbs voters no longer matters.

  36. with private donations, the opinions of western suburbs voters no longer matters.

    No but the opinion of the donors suddenly matters a great deal. Many of the very wealthy people in this country who could afford to fund research work made that money through mining. Do you suppose they would have much interest in funding climate science research or alternative energy projects?

  37. Love the endowment of chairs. All for it. Let’s have lots and lots of philanthropically endowed chairs. But within this country, sadly, it will never be enough to create a robust base of continuous appointments. Also here most of the people who have that kind of money are either from mining or media families, and they have agendas. It might be worth opening a thread devoted to discussing how the concept of noblesse oblige came to be excised from our class of well-to-do.
    The idea of the ARC process, and we can certainly argue about how effectively executed it is, is that the people who decide about distribution are highly qualified individuals from a range of specialisations, with whatever wisdom they have brought together. Not a politician who loathes academia currying votes. I take your point that it would be great if the voters didn’t matter, but we can’t rely on the preferences of the rich being any better. I would rather see someone come out and persuade the voters that strong universities are a valuable way to spend their money.

  38. My PhD studies were funded, in large part, by the estate of a manufacturer of shoemaking machines. The creation of a philanthropic mindset amongst the rich requires a generational change – I am much more likely to donate to the (private) university where I was funded by philanthropy than to the one where I was funded by the government.
    I am drawn to the analogy with arts funding, where patronage has been a traditional means of arts funding. Government funding of art has traditionally meant funding of those things that the people in the government consider to be art – do you remember that Yes Minister episode? People should be able to vote with their pocketbooks what they want to fund, in terms of art, and although in my heart I feel that science should be different, I can’t quite elucidate the reason why.

  39. Have we gone too far down the path of expecting something for their money though, rather than just philanthropy for philanthropy’s sake?

  40. Bill Gates donated 20 million dollars for a building and didn’t even get his name on it. (it got his mother’s maiden name instead.)
    If you expect something for it, it’s no longer philanthropy, it’s contract research – but this is something the US has done better than us as well, with DARPA, DoE, and NIH all funding contract research.

  41. Relying entirely on philanthropy has another problem (not just in relation to this topic), which I will summarise as: “what is the nature of the society in which I wish to live?”
    I, personally, like the idea of a society in which the government, qua the community, considers it part of the “plenty” we have as a community to to fund research (among other things) which exists for its own sake, even if it might never be “productive” of a concrete gain.
    And this is the real problem. I am coming from a fundamentally different place than the “only fund the useful stuff!” people.
    On a slightly different note: if the philanthropists don’t expect anything for their money, then surely they would be just as happy to pay more in tax and let society, via the government, determine how it should be spent.
    Cue crickets.
    The US approach to philanthropy – which, yes, they do “better” than us – is inextricably linked to the general view in the US of the role of the government and the proper level of taxation. I would rather see us improve – yes, moral judgment – our attitude towards taxation than increase the level of philanthropy. I certainly do not want to see our attitude to taxation reach, say, Californian levels.
    (And yes, I know that democracy is an imperfect beast in terms of government doing what “society wants”. But there is no perfect system in this regard – including, as has been pointed out above, relying on particular individuals who decide to donate money not to be biased.)
    (I also know that my position here is idealistic. But I see nothing wrong with keeping the ideal in sight – any move towards it is better than nothing.)

  42. Whilst the US does philanthropy better than elsewhere (partially because they don’t pay taxes), it is targeted towards the more elite universities (Harvard, Cambridge etc). This means that there is very little money for research done in non-elite institutes and that biases research in quite meaningful ways. Now this is also true of Australia and the UK, which fund through the govt, but at least non-elite institutions can apply for those fund and excellent researchers can get them (they do have a harder job as they get a lower score on the ‘institutional support’, but it’s not impossible).
    It also means that there is very little money for humanities research; most of which is done out of pocket by humanities researchers in most US institutes, which doesn’t seem fair or sustainable to me. The money given out by the NIH is a tiny fraction of what the Aus/UK systems give, plus they tend to require winners of funds to pay part of their expenses out of pocket. Again, why should people need to pay to do their job?
    In the end, however, like Jo, this is about a political position towards the role of govt in society, where I would rather the state played this role than research be at the mercy of whether people felt generous that week.

  43. Cambridge is in the UK, and not the US.
    The NIH gives out plenty of money, just not to humanities researchers.
    Jo: if I donate to, say, Mary’s charity, I don’t expect them to do anything other than to continue their mission. I don’t necessarily want recognition or to choose what projects they fund etc. If they did something egregiously disagreeable, such as coming out against gay marriage, I might try to have a quiet word, but it’s still philanthropy to support a particular cause. I might not like paying higher taxes to support causes that I don’t like.

  44. Jo: if I donate to, say, Mary’s charity, I don’t expect them to do anything other than to continue their mission. I don’t necessarily want recognition or to choose what projects they fund etc.

    Unfortunately not all ‘philanthropists’ do this.

  45. I might not like paying higher taxes to support causes that I don’t like.

    Well, no one does, do they? But when it’s for politicians’ salaries or the military or road infrastructure (which we equally may not like paying for) we accept that that’s what the government is there to do, and plenty of us think that the very rich should be expected to make the more substantial contribution.

    Cambridge is in the UK, and not the US.

    Cambridge is also the town in Massachusetts, USA, where Harvard, MIT and Radcliffe (before it merged with Harvard) are located. Named after Cambridge in the UK, people often use it as shorthand for an ivy-league area. You’re starting to sound like a bit of an ass (British spelling applicable).

  46. Hildy: Surely if there were a demand for, or interest in creating institutes of higher education on a philanthropic basis, our millionaires and billionaires would have already been knocking at the government’s door? Certainly over here in WA, where we apparently have a massive skills shortage in disciplines like Engineering and IT, we should have seen Australia’s Richest Woman pulling money out of the wallet to fund the creation of new facilities to train staff for her company’s projects?
    Oh, hang on, we haven’t seen that. We haven’t even seen these big mining corporations pulling out the wallets to fund scholarships to train students in the in-demand fields, or offering traineeships, or apprenticeships in order to deal with their skills shortage. I think Australian educational philanthropy probably has a fair old way to go before we’ll see the endowment of research chairs – especially when it becomes clear that such chairs won’t be tied to researching solely in certain fields, or only in certain directions.
    You might also want to have a word with some of the US academics about such things, too – they tend to have a slightly more nuanced viewpoint about them. Certainly it’s worth noting that at least part of the standard process for writing academic papers these days includes various commercial disclaimers, explaining where the money came from for the project, so the researcher’s academic independence can be ascertained. There are quite a few cases known where commercial sponsors didn’t get the results they were looking for from their research, and thus refused permission to publish, thus harming the careers of the people they’ve sponsored.

  47. Megpie, in my particular field, we didn’t have problems – I went, as a PhD student, to a major Ivy League university, which had a large endowment funded primarily from bequests.
    I can’t speak to humanities research in the US.

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