To drive innovation, Australia must boost rather than curb investment in humanities and social science research

During the Senate Estimates on 25th October 2018, Labor Senator for Victoria, Kim Carr, revealed on Twitter that then minister for education and training, Simon Birmingham, had rejected 11 funding grants recommended by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in 2017 and 2018. The grants, all for funding in the humanities, amounted to a combined total of A$4.2 million, including A$1.4m in discovery grants. 

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Responding to Senator Carr’s comments, former minister Birmingham tweeted that he was ‘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.”’

Minister veto widely condemned in Australia and overseas

News of the former Education Minister’s decision to veto the 11 research projects that had been recommended for funding by the ARC has been met with widespread condemnation, both in Australian and overseas. In a joint statement, the leaders of Australia’s 39 universities said the decision undermined confidence in Australia’s highly competitive and rigorous research funding system, where funding decisions are ‘judged by panels of the most eminent experts in each field of research, through a lengthy and rigorous process’.

The Australian Academy of the Humanities also released a statement expressing shock and anger at the decision. Echoing the statement by university heads, the Academy said that such political interference ‘undermines confidence and trust’ in a rigorous funding system that is ‘highly respected around the world’.

Academics affected by the decision have raised issues of a lack of transparency in communicating the decision and the fact that only projects ‘tied to one panel out of eight: Humanities and Creative Arts’ were ‘quashed’. In an article in The Australian, national president of the National Tertiary Education Union writes that the decision has affected lives and careers, and caused at least one academic to relocate overseas.

Overseas, a news report in the scientific journal Nature expressed concerns from academics that the decision has undermined ‘the integrity of the peer-review system’ and could damage Australia’s reputation as a desired destination for international researchers. The Times Higher Education reported that the intervention and effectual ‘censoring’ of humanities research is at odds with the government’s claim to protect free speech.

What does the veto mean for Australian research?

In response to concerns about lack of transparency and political interference in Australia’s peer-review system, both the Coalition Government and the Opposition Labor Party have pledged to make any future ministerial veto of a funding decision public.

However, the government has said that it would also like to establish a ‘national interest test’ for government-funded research projects. This decision has left Universities Australia ‘baffled’, given that academics must already meet national benefit requirements.

Other academics have commented that the additional national interest test could ‘further erode’ independent research in what is likely to a ‘a narrower restriction of grants to the government’s science and research priorities’.

Australia needs to boost rather than curb investment in social science and humanities research

Given that all of the 11 vetoed research projects were in the humanities, a field that already receives the smallest proportion of research grants, the ministerial veto and potential additional ‘national interest test’ has broader implications, particularly for humanities and social science research.

The former minister’s stance is in stark contrast to developments in other countries, where funding for social science research is receiving a significant boost. For instance, in Singapore, the Government recently announced a 45 per cent increase in funding for social science research.

In the face of rapid technological disruption, driving innovation is more important than ever. This includes increasing recognition of the role of the arts in driving technological change and in STEM education through cultivating skills and understanding in human traits such as empathy, imagination and creativity among future generations.

A recent report highlighted by the The Times Higher Education has warned that a deeper understanding of human behaviours and attitudes will be critical to improving services and solving future challenges through technological advances.

As is happening overseas, Australia would benefit from increasing its investment in humanities and social science research rather than curbing it.

Dr. Brigid Trenerry is a social science researcher and moderator for Power to Persuade.

Photo credit: Lai Sanders @laisanders, courtesy of Unsplash