The decisions of the former Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, to reject funding for some research applications recommended by the Australian Research Council (ARC), have understandably caused concern and anger amongst researchers, academics and universities. However, it has all happened before. In 2005 Brendan Nelson, the then Minister for Education, rejected applications recommended for funding by the ARC. This is not to downplay the seriousness of what has happened, but rather to point out that the intrusion of politics and ideology into matters that at one time would have been beyond such intrusion, now are of long standing and symptomatic of an animus directed against universities and certain types of research, to which the humanities have been particularly susceptible.
One disturbing feature of the affair is the reason given by Mr. Birmingham for his decisions to reject the applications. In a statement on Twitter his argument was that most Australian taxpayers would prefer their taxes to be spent elsewhere. Subsequently, the new minister, Dan Tehan, has proposed what would seem to be a more stringent “national interest” condition on research projects that need ARC funding. This type of limited and narrow thinking on the complex issue of how taxpayer funds should be best spent on education and research has been attractive to many, and has been common in higher education policy since the changes in the culture and purpose of higher education were introduced by the then labor government thirty years ago.
But the rudimentary nature of the ministers' thinking poses questions on a wider front. At present, the ARC is an instrument of government in a way that universities are not. That is what makes it possible for a minister to intervene in research allocation decisions, while at the same time university autonomy continues to be valued by governments, at least at the level of lip service. But interventions like these pose the question as to just how far political intrusion into wider cultural, academic, policy discussion, and educational matters could go and still be considered reasonable. Once one has condoned political interference in some aspects of Australia's research on the basis of popular support or a nebulous “national interest”, why should such interference not be condoned if applied more widely? This question is more acute than before, because politics, populism and commerce have been intruding more and more into the wider values of society, and academic, educational and research activity are being judged more than ever before in terms of marketing, commercial and political values.
Another aspect is the apparent attitude of Mr. Birmingham that he was not under an obligation to make the decisions public, nor to give any type of detailed argument for his decisions – a slogan on Twitter is quite enough it appears, notwithstanding the extremely rigorous process ARC research applicants have to prepare for and endure. Of course, the system of peer review used by the ARC may not guarantee the quality of research in all possible cases – but then, no system can do that. There can always be dispute about what research should be supported, and that is why there is a body like the ARC. But what one can say is that a rigorous system of peer review, such as we have in the case of the ARC, is far preferable to hidden interventions by government ministers whose actions, it would seem, are uninformed and based upon populist slogans and short-term political and ideological considerations. Our national research effort should be directed not only to our immediate interests, whatever they may be taken to be, but also to humanity as a whole in its need for solutions to pressing problems as well as a need to understand in the widest sense.