The small business of research funding

Like most academics and several other Conversation authors, I imagine, I’m irritated at the Coalition’s recently stated intention to micro-manage ARC Granting outcomes. Irritated, but in no way surprised.

Have The Coalition strategists been reading up on the tactical genius of Sarah Palin?

Grandstanding about slashing “futile”, “wasteful” or “silly” research is a tired old culture-war antic, practiced internationally. So is the shameful tendency to mock individual researchers and their project titles. And the reassurance that the money will be redeployed to more useful research purposes. According to the Daily Telegraph:

The funds released from the projects to be axed will be put into new medical research programs for dementia, diabetes and tropical disease.

By which the public are led to understand that no harm will come to those good-looking people in white lab coats who seem to be endlessly pipetting things out on the nightly news. The ones threatening to make a discovery that might go to clinical trials and then possibly cure cancer by 2027.

No government, but especially no conservative government, wants to be seen cutting funding to cancer, dementia or any of the other diseases we tend to die of in industrialised nations. Hell, I don’t want to die of cancer or descend into Alzheimer’s either. I’m a massive fan of medical research in general, and publicly funded research that serves the public good in particular.

The Coalition has long been strong on medical research funding. But one could reasonably conclude from recent development that the fact that extra money can be channelled to the very worthy medical research areas by slashing the cashflow to other areas, thus stoking haves-and-have-not tensions among left-biased university-based egg-heads is just an added tactical bonus.

This development brought to mind an excellent op-ed by David Graeber in Tuesday’s Sydney Morning Herald. He laments the rise of “bullshit nonsense jobs”, including:

the ballooning not even so much of the ‘’service’‘ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries such as financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations.

That is not, he takes pains to explain, to criticise folks in those kinds of jobs who find meaning therein. But rather to echo the sentiment that many corporate lawyers, health administrators, public relations spin doctors etc themselves express that their jobs are bereft of meaning or purpose. I certainly don’t mean to line up directly behind Graeber on this one, but the passage that reached me most directly was this:

This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it in Britain, when tabloids whip up resentment against transport workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that the workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilising resentment against schoolteachers or car workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or car industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told: “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and healthcare?”

I’m not unaware that for many people, many academics fall among the useless elites. But the right-wing populist resentment directed at academics and researchers channels very much the same frustrations as Graeber identified about real people with real real jobs. Puritanism, wrote H.L. Mencken, is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” By this measure, it is not unreasonable to diagnose in the LNP and their backers a chronic case of intellectual puritanism. They are haunted by the fear that somebody, somewhere, might be doing something interesting.

Can’t have that.

Intellectual pulse

On Wednesday night I had the privilege of briefly addressing the Eureka Prize dinner. In my brief moment on stage I got to trot out one of my more well-worn lines:

Support for curiosity-driven fundamental research remains essential if a society is to have any kind of intellectual pulse. But researchers inherit with that support an obligation to share their knowledge and insights with the society that supports their work.

Writing for The Conversation is one of the most important ways in which I share my own knowledge and insights. I had hoped, in thanking the Australian Research Council for supporting my own research, to also note that I hoped a future Coalition government would not go for the cheap nastiness of qualifying their support for curiosity-driven research or meddling in the peer-review process. I need not have bothered.

Yesterday’s news should have dismayed anyone with an interest in making a better society, a more educated society, one with an intellectual pulse. One should not be surprised, given the quality of the campaign, and the inadequate scrutiny that has been applied (with the notable exception, in my opinion, of The Conversation’s Election FactChecks) to the leaders, the parties and their platforms. Living in a society that has any intellectual vibrancy appears not to be a serious concern of the major parties.

Far more important, it seems, to be sure the Big Brother House is kept up to speed by the leaders themselves. People, I might add, unable to count in multiples of seven and realise how long they have been isolated from the rest of the world. Whatevz.

Small businesses

You’ve probably already read a dozen other pieces, more eloquent and reasoned than mine, criticising the philistine intellectual puritanism underpinning these latest threats to target particular grants and researchers. Similarly, the lack of attention to research, knowledge, and higher education from both Liberal and Labour this campaign has featured among the many, many disappointments of the last few weeks.

Rather than re-tread these arguments, I’d like to make a simple point about research funding and how best to allocate that amount of money that the country can afford to spend.

Let me put this in terms even Jaymes Diaz could pretend to understand. I know the pollies fancy themselves as friends of “small business”. Well, research groups are very much like small businesses.

And we all know that small businesses want the government to “cut red tape”. Back in March I wrote about the 550 person years that are wasted every single year on the preparation of research grants that don’t get funded via the ARC’s existing processes. Much of that immense wastage happens because of red tape. Nonsense sections in which researchers bend over backwards to mollify politicians concerned that somebody, somewhere, might be doing something because it is interesting.

Politicians in market-based economies don’t concern themselves with deciding which kinds of small business to favour over others. They recognise that their job is to enable small businesses to flourish. Which, as long as those small businesses meet some basic standards of social and environmental responsibility, initiates all kinds of virtuous economic cycles.

And yet, when it comes to the knowledge economy, politicians cannot resist the temptation to micro-manage and intervene. Creating entire bureaucracies to psuedo-account research impact and excellence wastes millions. Money that could better elevate Australia’s research performance by funding research grants to support the small businesses of the knowledge economy. Picking winners and losers within grant rounds is petty and wasteful. And poring over grants that have been selected after a period of scrutiny 100 times* more acute than an election campaign is the biggest waste of all.

  • Not a real quantitative estimate. But you get the picture. Thanks to @DrBrocktagon for the idea of this comparison.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

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