Research and a New Big Brother

Finally. The sausages are done. No more putting up with partisan barrackers. An end to putting up with the petty point scoring and amateur analysis. You don’t even have to bite your tongue at that one nut who always goes over the top. Things can go back to normal. Yep, the kids’ footy season is over.

In the meantime, there was this election thing. As with any change people survey the landscape and try to figure out what it means. For researchers that started days ago, with the announcement that the incoming government will look to cut $103 million by ditching “ridiculous research grants”. They then pulled the standard trick of quoting a couple of titles in the humanities without context to make the point. The culture wars never start with guns, but with mockery.

The research community was quick to jump. This is perhaps because they know the sort of malarkey that has gone in the US (covered earlier here) and because the last time a government got talking like this, things got ugly (more on that below). At the heart of this are a few assumptions:

  • Peer review isn’t rigorous enough.
  • There is more value in applied research than all other types.
  • Politicians and community reviewers know better.

He's probably just misunderstood, right? [via mriddett.com]

He’s probably just misunderstood, right? [via mriddett.com]

Slapdash Peer Review

Peer review is not a boozed up work BBQ where old mates share out the funding 6-pack. It’s a rigorous, very drawn out process (check an outline here). The application gets put together over hundreds and hundreds of hours. It then meets a whole group of independent reviewers who are subject matter experts in the same field. There’s collation of the reviewers’ feedback and the chance for the applicants to swear a lot when they get that feedback. They get to respond and say as politely as possible “get stuffed, this is actually seriously excellent and you just need a few more facts”.  Then there’s final reviews and for the successful applicants the decisions about how much will actually be provided.

After all that, the ARC only grants about 20% of applicants any money. That’s not because only 20% were actually decent, it’s because there’s a limit on the money (the projects are generally part-funded) and other highly rated projects miss out. It’s so rigorous that effectively hundreds of years are expended by researchers on applications that won’t be successful.

Peer review weeds out the crap. Is it absolutely perfect? Of course not. But the assertion that there are large numbers of wasteful, irrelevant projects being waved through by an independent body has no basis in fact.

I’d wager that the pollies could do with peer review themselves. If all pollies’ thought bubbles had to go through this process you can guarantee there’d be a whole lot less rubbish getting out there. Like special plans for northern Australia or buying boats from Indonesian fishermen to prevent people smuggling. Or my favourite, the internet filtering policy developed by up to 9 MPs, screened by HQ, checked by the leader the night before then shown to the responsible minister with a little time to digest it. The policy was junk and was abandoned 3 hours later.

Even when they peer review, they don’t know how to peer review. But they reckon the ARC process is rife with problems.

Don’t Argue With Death

Thrown in as a bonus is the idea that there is medical research, and then all the other less valuable frippery.

For starters, what dolt thinks medical research happens without other research? It’s a creationists’ world view. Medical research doesn’t suddenly appear like a precious flower in a featureless wasteland.  It relies on many years of industrious activity from those working on basic science. Applied science exists because basic research gave it a shot. Argue against devoting funds to medical research though, and risk getting accused of being OK with people missing out on the next big cure.

The group at real risk is the humanities. So often seen as “not contributing”, the exploration of “non-science” areas is no less valid a way to explore and understand our world (I defer to the excellent Patrick Stokes here). So what’s the point of pitting research communities against each other? It can only be to try and divide the voices of those who might speak up to protect an independent process.

The Selection Panel

But maybe those voicing concern are just being paranoid? Well, not that long ago a Coalition government started applying the “has to please the gasfitter” rule and projects approved by peer review were vetoed. The list hasn’t been confirmed but is thought to have included projects such as a review of how politicians had used the media in various scandals. Of course, no one can understand why modern use of media might be of interest, right?

Until I see everyone suggesting a community cabinet should help veto Australian cricket team picks, where there’ s a more obvious need for auditing, I’ll be unconvinced there’s merit to the idea.

There’s a longer piece by Gideon Haigh covering the period in plenty of depth. It does a good job of recording the charged history that unfolded (and includes some of the areas where the ARC process isn’t perfect). The fear is that once decisions are vetoed because they please or displease political masters, the tenor of all applications becomes tainted. Nobel laureate Peter Doherty is quoted in the article decrying the risk of shutting down debate:

“What these people are saying is that certain things shouldn’t be looked at … and I don’t believe that at all. In a free society, we should be able to look at anything. A free society should welcome debate – which is one of the very depressing things about this society, that it’s trying to close debate down, which is always a sign of mediocrity, and mediocrity at the highest political level. What happens next?”

Here’s what has to happen next – the entire research community has to be ready for the detail and speak up. Anyone who thinks they can afford not to be a communicator had better think twice. The indications are it will be on like Donkey Kong. Is everyone ready to raise their voice?

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One thought on “Research and a New Big Brother

  1. Pingback: Waste not, want not – the politics of why philosophy matters

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