Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Politics

Humanities versus medicine: the Coalition’s funding battleground

by Julia Tulloh , October 7, 20131 Comment
pencils

Image credit: ArtfulVintage

Just prior to this year’s federal election, former Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Liberal MP Jamie Briggs (Chairman of the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee) announced that one of the ways in which the Coalition would crack down on Labor’s financial waste would be through an audit of ‘increasingly ridiculous research grants’ awarded through the Australian Research Council (ARC), the statutory agency responsible for distributing federal funding to humanities and scientific research. The Coalition has promised that overall, research funding won’t be reduced; rather, according to Hockey in a press conference and interviews, up to $103 million will be taken from spending on irrelevant research funded through the ARC and redirected to medical research (which is funded separately), including investment in cures for and treatment of diabetes and dementia.

On the surface, the Coalition’s promise appears positive for Australia: an increase in funding for research into incurable diseases that affect a large proportion of the population, and a tightening up of the distribution rules for research funding more generally. A closer inspection of the Coalition’s comments, though, reveals a number of problems.

The first problem is a bias against humanities research. Briggs and Hockey singled out four ARC-funded humanities projects that ‘do little, if anything, to advance Australians’ research needs’: a philosophy project exploring notions of selfhood ($595,000); a project about sexuality and reproductive technology amongst Muslims in Egypt ($160,000); another philosophy project, called  ‘The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism’ ($443,000); and an exploration of how public art might respond to climate change ($164,000).

By listing these projects in particular, the Coalition implicitly pitted humanities research against medical research, as if some battleground existed where funding in one area resulted in poorer outcomes in the other. This is not the case. I imagine very few humanities researchers would support a reduction in health and medical research; furthermore, how does humanities funding, or ARC funding generally, causally affect how much money is invested in medical research? It does not, unless the government chooses to distribute funding this way, in so doing creating a sense of competition between research disciplines that need not exist.

Nevertheless, in creating this discussion, the Coalition has tapped into a pre-existing social bias that presumes that arts-based projects are self-indulgent. One commenter on an article in The Australian claimed that the projects listed above were  ‘esoteric’ and led to high numbers of  ‘unemployable graduates with HECS debts and worthless degrees cluttering up Centrelink offices.’ Ironically, such remarks are not based on evidence; more and more, governments and businesses are actively seeking to employ humanities graduates since their reading, writing and critical thinking skills are often superior to graduates from other disciplines—Google being the most famous example of this.

I concede that the projects cited by the Coalition may sound obscure if you’re unfamiliar with philosophy, sexuality studies, or contemporary art studies. However, as a humanities researcher myself, I experience the same sense of unfamiliarity when I hear the titles of science or health-based projects. This doesn’t mean I write them off as useless. It means I ask an expert for an explanation of the importance of the project. If the experts believe the project is not valuable, fine; that decision is for experts—not for politicians.

Thankfully, the experts have spoken out. Dr Lisa Wynn, who heads up the project about reproductive technology in Egypt, has responded via interview with ABC Local Radio and blog Culture Matters to explain the significance of her project. In summary, she explains:

‘It’s a case study that boils down to a very fundamental and interesting question: how much do religious authorities influence what Muslims think and do? Considering that Australia has 350,000 Muslims, I would think even the Liberal Party would like to know the answer to that question.

This is just one example of the way in which a research topic that may sound obscure to a layperson can actually yield results which affect national policy. Again, this reflects the importance of letting experts explain the significance of their research, rather than pre-judging them.

There is of course a broader problem with the Coalition’s approach to research funding – the belief that the relevance and outcomes of research improve when politicians, rather than experts, decide which projects receive funding.

This belief ignores the already rigorous and competitive process that ARC funding applicants must undertake in order to receive funding. Applicants must submit long, detailed and meticulously researched proposals for their intended research. Teams of highly qualified, experienced researchers then peer review all applications to ensure that only the best submissions (out of the thousands that apply) get funded. Furthermore, the ARC is subject to strict, regular evaluation regarding the quality of the research it funds by the Australian National Audit Office, as well as a number of other external bodies as outlined in the ARC Annual Report.

Since the Coalition’s announcement, academics around Australia have responded with incredulity and anger, observing that politicians were making sweeping statements about the worth of research that they knew nothing about. Many high profile researchers, universities and other research organisations have expressed deep concern about politicians replacing the existing ARC peer review process. Nobel Prize winner, Professor Peter Doherty from the University of Melbourne’s Medical School, hopes that ‘we’re not moving back to the Howard era where a committee of supremely unqualified people scrutinised ARC grant titles for “political correctness”’; Winthrop Professor Krishna Sen has argued that ‘Overt political interference can only diminish the quality of academic research and in many instances deprive government of the evidence-base needed for good policy making.’

Doherty’s and Sen’s statements reveal the contradiction at the heart of the Coalition’s comments: on the one hand, the Coalition wants to promote relevant and ground-breaking research; on the other, the Coalition wants to appoint a group of non-experts—i.e. themselves—as arbiters of this relevant research, threatening the autonomy of Australian research with political goals that are not necessarily evidence-based.

Julia Tulloh is a freelance writer, and is completing a PhD in Literature at the University of Melbourne. Her essay ‘What happens next?: 50 years of Doctor Who appears in Issue 15 of Kill Your Darlings. 




22454066

Jacinta Halloran

Medicine as Art: An interview with Terrence Holt

Internal Medicine turns on its head the commonly-held wisdom of power and control in the doctor-patient relationship. Holt’s doctor-narrator is conflicted and questioning, often exhausted and confused. His writing aims for something less slick than the sanitised television offerings of medical melodramas, where ‘what entertains usually falsifies.’ Read more »

2303400407_d25f8d8b8a_o

James Tierney

What Australian Literary Conversation?

I am concerned about the absence of a performative aspect of criticism in the public domain, which doesn’t necessarily assume specialised knowledge or recognised allegiances, but is prepared to discuss what criticism is. Read more »

9781847086273

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their picks

Is your to-read pile looking particularly uninspiring at the moment? Or maybe you’ve just finished a novel and aren’t quite sure what to read next. Never fear! The staff from Readings bookshop have your back. Here they share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

6314976-3x2-940x627

Rebecca Shaw

Out of Alignment: Religion, politics and priorities

Throughout your (hopefully long) life, you will often be forced to prioritise one thing over another thing.
Because we make these decisions based on what we personally think is important or morally right, the things other people choose to prioritise can be confusing or upsetting to us. I find this happens regularly when bearing witness to what some religious people or religious groups choose to place importance on. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

every-day-2012-005_cmyk

Anwen Crawford

Being Boring: Passing time with the films of Michael Winterbottom

What does it mean to film the same performers over the course of years, to have them age in front of the camera? Everyday pays careful attention to boredom, and at moments it manages to capture a sense of time that is both elusive and profound. Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

2011 Jesse Knish Photography

Katie Williams

Pilgrimage to San Francisco: Power and Privilege at the Game Developers Conference

Attendees talk about the annual pilgrimage to the Game Developer’s Conference with the same reverence as a child’s first trip to Disney World. It’s the Magic Kingdom for adult nerds. The weeks leading up to the conference are full of discussion about which parties to attend, and how best to make an impression on people who could be useful in furthering your game development career. Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »