Humanities versus medicine: the Coalition’s funding battleground

by Julia Tulloh , October 7, 20131 Comment

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. 

9004993292_3d8f026110_z (1)

Samantha Forge

Apples and Oranges: The false economy of the parallel importation debate

The government’s recent decision to support the removal of parallel importation restrictions (PIR) on books shows that it is determined to treat Australian books like oranges. This stance makes it clear that the government sees no particular cultural value in the works of Australian authors, and in the production of Australian literature. Rather, it values above all else the unit price of a book, regardless of its origin. Read more »


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


Adam Rivett

Tell Me, Princess: The evolution of Disney’s princess songs

Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. But at the heart of its achievement sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »