The politics of research and science

Research rules: peer review, not politicians, should decide the merit of research projects, says Kim Carr. Credit: Ben Searcy

Australia’s conservative coalition government has been caught intervening in the allocation of research funding. Labor is promising a comprehensive review of the country’s research needs and priorities. The shadow minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Kim Carr, explains why.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, there has been a reaction against globalism and internationalism in all Western democracies.

The reaction has taken different forms in different countries, some more pernicious than others.

It has led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the contortions over Brexit in the United Kingdom.

At its most toxic, it has spawned the rise of far-right populist movements such as the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and ultra-nationalist governments such as that of Viktor Orban in Hungary.

At the time of writing, it is playing out on the streets of Paris in the protests of the gilets jaunes or “yellow vests”.

A response to these reactions by mainstream democratic politicians requires recognition that their fellow citizens – who are being lured out of the mainstream – are typically those who have not fared well in the neoliberal economic order. For many, neoliberalism has not delivered what it promised.

But an effective response also requires the acceptance that some activities that are crucial to the prosperity of advanced industrial civilisations must be conducted in an international context, and free from political intervention and manipulation. Above all, that is true of science and research.

In some parts of the democratic world, politicians have not resisted the temptation to try to further their own agendas by inciting populist resentment of intellectual elites.

Several nations have conducted comprehensive reviews of their research systems that upheld the importance of what is commonly called the Haldane Principle in the UK – politicians should not decide the merit of particular research projects, and should remain at arm’s length from decisions to fund them.

Most notably, there have been Sir Paul Nurse’s review of research councils in the UK, Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour, which released its final report in 2014, and Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, which reported in April last year.

These reviews have become models for other nations to emulate. But in some parts of the democratic world, politicians have not resisted the temptation to try to further their own agendas by inciting populist resentment of intellectual elites.

In the US, President Trump has declared that he does not believe the warnings on climate change issued by his own administration’s science agencies.

And in my own country, Australia, the incumbent government has recently engaged in what amounts to an attempt to undermine the Haldane Principle.

During a Senate committee hearing in October, it was revealed that earlier in the year the man who was then Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, had rejected 11 grant applications recommended by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

All the applications were by eminent scholars, several with international reputations, and they had all been scrutinised by a rigorous process of peer review, as is usual in any system in which political intervention and censorship are not the norm.

 

At the time of making his decision, Senator Birmingham did not give reasons for vetoing the 11 applications. He still has not done so, apart from tweeting a philistine sneer at a project title: “I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post-orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’.”

It was significant that all of the 11 rejected applications were for research projects in the humanities, which, unless explained in detail, can be soft targets for this kind of philistinism.

But, just as significantly, the entire Australian research community recoiled at the revelation of the minister’s intervention.

The universities, medical research institutes and the learned academies, including the Academy of Science, all condemned his actions because the implication of his decisions for the funding of research in any form of scholarly or scientific inquiry were all too apparent.

[The next government] will have to restore the integrity of the research funding system and to start repairing the damage Birmingham and Tehan have done to the international reputation of Australia’s researchers.

Senator Birmingham is no longer Education Minister, but his attitude to research funding continues to prevail.

His successor, Dan Tehan, renewed the attack on the grants process by announcing that in future grant applications will have to satisfy a “national interest test”.

He did not explain why such a test was necessary or how the national interest would be assessed.

And, displaying his gross ignorance, he did not appear to be aware that the existing grants process already includes such a test.

Applicants are required to explain how their project will contribute to the nation, and how it complies with national science and research priorities.

The current test assesses applications according to their economic, social and cultural effects on the life of the nation. Those are the terms Tehan used when he first spoke of a national interest test.

So isn’t his new test redundant? And if it is not, what is the minister expecting it to assess beyond what is already assessed?

We have not been told, which raises the prospect that Tehan’s real motive is to further politicise the grants process.

If the Liberal-National Party coalition loses office in the election that is due within the next six months, the task of Australia’s incoming government will not be easy.

It will have to restore the integrity of the research funding system and to start repairing the damage Birmingham and Tehan have done to the international reputation of Australia’s researchers.

The opposition Labor Party has committed itself to doing these things, and to undertaking a comprehensive review of Australia’s research needs and priorities, on the model of the Nurse review.

The challenges will be considerable, because it is always harder to build up than to tear down.

But those challenges must be accepted, because without a sure basis for scientific and scholarly research civilisation itself will wither.

 


Senator Kim Carr is a member of the Australian Labor Party. He is shadow minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

 

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