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A farewell to arts: on philosophy, ARC funding and ‘waste’

The Coalition - among others - have been recently taking aim at the worth of certain Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded projects. Verbal jousting around the value of philosophy as a humanities discipline…

Coalition MP Jamie Briggs doesn’t want the ARC funding ‘interesting thought bubbles’. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Coalition - among others - have been recently taking aim at the worth of certain Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded projects. Verbal jousting around the value of philosophy as a humanities discipline has followed. Battlelines on these issues have formed, but as usual the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I suggest that the debate needs to mature a little.

Coalition MP Jamie Briggs claims that:

We want research with Australian taxpayers’ money to be about the better future for our country, not about funding some interesting thought bubble that some academic sitting away in a university somewhere has come up with and think they might be interested in looking at.

The problem is this. Attacks on “wasteful” ARC funding tend to get conflated with attacks on philosophy itself. All philosophers do, of course, is play around with “interesting thought bubbles” in one form or another, so this is tantamount to a de facto attack on a venerable old discipline. As a result, philosophy becomes an easy target for funding waste-spotters.

Probing a little deeper, however, reveals an exquisite dilemma. A lot of philosophical thought bubbles have led to important and innovative contributions to human knowledge and civilisation over the years - more, perhaps, than some would care to admit. However, it is not always easy to spot which thought bubbles will eventually gain traction, and which ideas will go nowhere, benefit no one, and do a lot of harm (like “post-modernism”). So, as a country, should we fund philosophical research or not?

Sensibly, we try to fund some of it. A wealthy country like ours tries to scatter its resources and fund as many potentially useful ideas as it can, and uses a “panel of experts” to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes experts get it wrong, of course, and this can lead to waste. To make matters worse, committees like the ARC are perceived by some as lacking transparency and have been accused of moral deficiency. It is also not always the best people who get the money.

Some have suggested that the ARC needs to be abolished. However, as far as I know, to date no-one has come up with anything better in terms of a selection process. This leads to the perennial and recurring claims about funding “waste” and the ill-informed attacks on disciplines like philosophy.

The current process of funding the arts is imperfect, and it could be improved. But how?

I want to accept the “waste argument” (within limits), but reject the attacks on philosophy (or at least, some forms of it). There is also room for improving the process of selecting humanities research projects, so that projects in genuine need of funding might be seen to justly deserve their continued funding.

A balanced approach to funding the humanities

Like everything else, the question of whether to give funding to humanities research projects is a matter of balance. Some humanities projects do seem, at face value at least, quite wasteful and unnecessary, especially in times of resource shortage, and when there are so many deserving projects in medicine and related fields.

For example, does the country really need to spend A$325,183 on a topic about “the experiences of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people in natural disasters”? LGBTI people are, after all, just people. Or $578,792 on the history of an ignored credit instrument in Florentine economic and social and religious life from 1570-1790? I have no disrespect for the researchers, or their projects, but there is a case for claiming that some projects should perhaps not be funded at all.

As a quite separate point, if it is decided that funding arts is important - and I think it is - the amounts allocated to (some) arts research funding can also sometimes seem manifestly excessive (where a much smaller amount might do). I recall the great Australian philosopher, Emeritus Professor J. J. C. Smart, telling me that he had no interest in applying for grants: all he needed to do philosophy was paper and a pencil. Having no need for funding, or a computer, didn’t stop his impressive contributions to the discipline.

Do philosophers need more than pencils and paper? quacktaculous

Personally, I’m not that interested in credit instruments in Florentine society, let alone ones that have been ignored. So I can see why some people question why an investigation of this nature requires such an investment. I stress that I have not read the application in question, which, for all I know, might well make a persuasive case. Prima facie however, a project of this kind appears to be a case of simply needing paper, pencils and a good library. What justification could there be for such vast expense?

Even so, this should not lead to a situation of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It does not mean all arts funding is always wasteful or excessive. Some projects are (often after the fact) so demonstrably deserving of funding, and of such “value for money”, we’d have been miserly indeed not to have spent at least some of our collective resources on a good idea when a good idea needed supporting. This is the obligation of a civilised society. The problem is how to have this intelligence in advance.

In a conciliatory spirit, let’s grant trade minister Andrew Robb’s point that, when times are tough it is reasonable to concentrate funding on areas of productivity, innovation and growth. It is also hard to disagree with historian Philippa Martyr’s assertion that funding a philosophical research project on Hegel - to the tune of $443,000 - is hard to justify when confronted with researchers on the threshold of a major advance in prostate cancer. Fair enough. As a man of a certain age I am more worried right now about my prostate than what Hegel thought.

But even so, what is considered “productive” research? And over what time scale should this research be considered? Let’s take just a few examples of philosophy’s contribution to humanity over the years.

Philosophy and its value to humankind

The sciences

Physics, chemistry and the like did not come into the world pre-formed. The philosopher Aristotle laid down the foundations of the modern-day sciences. His views were influential for hundreds of years before being debunked, after a lot of thinking, by Galileo, Newton and others (all of whom learnt much from philosophy).

No-one is quite sure how Aristotle was funded, but he’d find it hard to get an ARC grant today. How would he have justified his “interesting thought bubbles” to a committee at the time? It’s not incorrect to say that philosophy gave the world the sciences. That’s some contribution.

In recognition of this heritage, degree titles and the Chair in Physics at Oxford still refer to “Natural Philosophy”. But even now it is relevant.

Philosopher John Locke claimed that philosophy was an “under labourer” for the sciences Tom Clearwood

Philosopher John Locke suggested that the discipline was the “under labourer” for the sciences - helping to clarify concepts and clearing the way for empirical investigation. Even now philosophers and scientists often work together on the “big” problems: consciousness, time and space, existence, the nature of numbers, and so on. In a civilised, progressive, and intelligent society this work has to go on, and it sometimes requires money (although not always a lot) to do it.

According to Daniel Dennett, philosophy is also important to science in avoiding “scientific overreach”:

The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they’re very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart.

So the sciences are indebted to philosophy in a number of ways: for their genesis in the first place, and for ongoing “maintenance”.

Cognitive science and computer science

This interdisciplinary field did not come out of thin air either. It arose from philosophical speculations about the nature of mind and mental content. The logician and mathematician Alan Turing, who attended Wittgenstein’s philosophy lectures in Cambridge, was a pioneer. He left us with the blueprint for the modern computer, which was developed and extended by people who followed him. Turing’s “interesting thought bubbles” were not obviously of practical use at the time, and came out of left field whilst working on various code-breaking projects at Bletchley Park.

This philosophical work into computers and cognitive science continues, of course. Some of it has turned into very profitable businesses indeed. According to early mainframe computer maker and tycoon Max Palevsky:

…many of us early workers in computers were philosophy majors. You can imagine our surprise at being able to make rather comfortable livings.

Steve Jobs took acid, worked out of his parents' garage and studied philosophy EPA/John G. Mabanglo

True innovators like Palevsky, Steve Jobs and Turing are bowerbirds of philosophical ideas. They are the kind of people that may go unrecognised in their lifetimes. In Jobs' case, he initially worked out of the family garage, took arts subjects (famously, courses in calligraphy, but also philosophy), got involved with drugs and “dropped out”. People like this don’t always have single-minded career trajectories, nor start out trying to be socially and economically “productive”. They often use their wide-ranging thinking to enormous benefit and profit only much later.

Successful countries know this, and this is why they fund the humanities - disciplines that provide ideas for those exceptional (and not so exceptional) people that might be hungry for them. Countries such as the US rarely have agonising debates about the relevance of the arts like we do.

Again, this kind of fundamental work does not always need to be given buckets of money. But it has to go on, and in a relatively wealthy society we are well placed, morally and otherwise, to fund some speculative investments in these areas. Can it be done on normal academic salaries, without the need for additional funding? I address this later.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

On a related theme, few would question the value of artificial intelligence. We have just had a visit from the world’s most realistic robot. Yet, not many would recognise the importance that philosophy plays in this area.

Japan has been working on realistic humanoid robots, with the help of philosophy. EPA/Franck Robichon

Closely associated with cognitive science, entire journals and conferences are now devoted to AI research. Philosophers contribute vitally to debates that clarify concepts in the field such as “representation”, “perceptual content”, “mental image”, and so on. Philosophers such as Dennett, Searle and Dreyfus are prominent here. The highly ranked journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences contains regular contributions from philosophers.

This kind of work often does need large amounts of money to keep it going. There is the potential of conducting experiments. For a variety of reasons, these experiments usually don’t come cheap. “Phantom limb” experiments and empirical work on visual perception, for example, are being conducted by philosophers interested in issues at the intersection of AI and cognitive science. Like the sciences, this needs double-blind trials, labs, equipment, and other paraphernalia.

Fuzzy logics

Logic, another invention of the polymath Aristotle, needs to be understood in its standard forms, before coming to grips with its paraconsistent and “fuzzy” variants. These logics allow scope for partial truth, where truth-values range between completely true and completely false.

This turned out to be a very important, and very practical, innovation. Once a topic only of interest to philosophers drawing funny symbols on whiteboards who muttered darkly in dusty corridors of Arts faculties, fuzzy logics now run our cars and washing machines, and much else besides.

Symbolic logic of all kinds - which would come under the category of “interesting thought bubbles” if anything did - are an invention of philosophers of various stripes down through the ages, beginning with Aristotle and continuing to the present day. The work of Carnap, Tarski, Frege and Boole is important - the latter devised “Boolean” logic which lies at the heart of the digital revolution and powers our search engines.

Linguistics

This subject did not form out of nothing either. It arose from philosophical speculation about the nature of meaning, among other influences. Chomsky, de Saussure and others all studied or contributed to philosophy. Before he went barking mad, Friedrich Nietzsche was, at 24, a professor of classical philology.

In general, philosophy has a tendency to spawn new disciplines like this - semantics, semiotics, and so on are philosophically-infused allied fields. In this sense its importance to civilisation is immeasurable. Similarly, it’s hard to estimate the value of disciplines like linguistics as a social good. And, of course, like everything else, they need money to keep them going.

Social ideas

Regardless of one’s political leanings, one would be hard-pressed to say that Marxism and Leninism haven’t had have an influence. Rightly or wrongly, this system of thinking shaped much of the 20th century. Marx himself produced a PhD thesis on the work of pre-Socratic thinker (and originator of the idea of the atom) Democritus.

Conservative thinking is also grounded in philosophy. Consider the work of Burke, Locke, Mill, Hayek, and the like, to whom our senior politicians often refer. Former prime minister John Howard calls himself a “Burkean conservative” and PM Tony Abbott apparently immersed himself in Burke’s ideas while at Oxford. Plato wrote a treatise called The Republic that still resonates and influences people today. The US Constitution is also indebted to Locke’s work, and secularism is arguably an outcome of British empiricism.

How can we estimate the value of such social ideas? Philosophy spreads fundamental ideas about both our social institutions and us as human beings. These ideas can be very powerful. Indeed, for better or worse, they help to make us the people we are. New ideas of this kind need to be encouraged and promoted (and critically assessed).

In today’s society - unlike the world of private patronage in the past - funding is sometimes needed to support their genesis and development. Again, this is where the ARC comes in.

Business innovation

It often assumed that philosophy and business don’t mix. However, recently it has been suggested that Chinese philosophy can guide business innovation in surprising ways.

Javier Fernandez-Han shows the connection between innovation and philosophical thinking.

In a recent TED talk, acclaimed young inventor Javier Fernandez-Han showed that the process of innovation is very similar to philosophical thinking, including the use of metaphors, similes and thought experiments. According to Fernandez-Han, what the world really needs is not the mindless “liking” and “poking” mentality of social media, but the deeper, probing kind of thinking that philosophy promotes.

While on the subject of innovation, a surprising number come from ancient Greek philosophers: the sundial, the fulcrum/lever, innovations in geometry, algebra and trigonometry, the concept of proportion and irrational numbers, a water pumping device, and one of the first military weapons, a machine for propelling stones, among many others.

Examples of philosophical invention during the so-called “modern period” include the panopticon (a prison design), and the mechanical calculator (attributed to Pascal). Is it coincidence that periods of history famous for an explosion of innovation - ancient Greece, for example, and the renaissance - were also times when the study of philosophy was taken very seriously?

How do we assess ideas like these when they are first proposed, and how do we determine which ones to fund, given limited resources?

Thought experiments

Philosophers usually don’t do physical experiments. They do thought experiments instead. Plato’s metaphor of the cave, and the notion of a deeper reality underlying and explaining our knowledge of appearances, influenced Chomsky’s notion of an innate grammar, central to linguistics.

Thinking philosophically, Einstein wondered what it would be like to ride a beam of light holding a mirror: would one see one’s reflection whilst travelling at the speed of light? This, and thought experiments like it, changed the entire paradigm of physics. These have ushered in an entirely new way of doing things, leading to countless spin-off benefits.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wondered what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Lee Carson

Adam Smith had his “invisible hand” metaphor, a concept that profoundly changed economics. John Rawls contributed the idea of the “veil of ignorance” to political science. More recently, Thomas Nagel wondered “what it is like to be a bat?” and Australian philosopher Frank Jackson speculated about a future neuroscientist who could not experience colour.

These “experiments” had an enormous impact on modern day cognitive science. Daniel Dennett recently published an entire book on “intuition pumps”, philosophical techniques that help to test our assumptions on a range of important topics.

Local ideas

Let’s not forget Australia’s contributions to philosophy. Cambridge Don Hugh Mellor once said that:

…it is well that philosophy was not an Olympic sport, for Australasia has produced more good philosophers per square head than anywhere else.

An example is Jack Smart and U. T. Place’s idea of consciousness being contingently identical to brain processes (revolutionary in the 1950s). D. M. Armstrong’s development of this thesis, and the doctrine now known as “Australian Materialism”, all of which are recognised internationally. Then there are Singer’s radical contributions to moral philosophy and the animal rights movement, and our lesser-known contributions to research on time and space, formal logic, metaphysics, and countless other fields. The comprehensive two-volume ARC-funded book - History of Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand - is due out in 2014.

Philosophy, in short, sometimes helps to push back the frontiers of innovation in surprising ways. Dense philosophical concepts are not always well-understood in advance, and it is only in hindsight are they fully appreciated. They don’t come with bells and whistles or with signs shrieking “Potential Innovative New Idea!” to funding committees.

Indeed, were a funding body to assess a project in “fuzzy” logic when the idea was first mooted it is likely the applicants would have been shown the door.

Philosophical research funding

None of the examples given above might seem as initially “valuable” as a cure for prostate cancer to be sure, but there’s no telling how important they might be in the long term. Ideas have a long currency, and they are not always immediately relevant of useful. A plausible argument might be made that curing prostate cancer is less important than good ideas. Good ideas that lead to a debunking of fixed views and which drive us, as a society, toward conceptual innovation in a variety of fields.

As it is often said, most men die with prostate cancer, not from it; a cure for it might be a luxury we don’t necessarily need. However, society really does need new ideas.

Fortunately, in wealthy countries like ours we rarely need to pick and choose. We can have healthy prostates and new ideas as well. Powerful ideas that have real applications can come from the most unlikely sources, and are often recognised as such only retrospectively.

Sometimes these great ideas arise in the normal course of doing philosophical “business”. Sometimes they are an appropriate and integral aspect of routine professional labours. Occasionally, however, they require funding to make the ideas fly. How do we, as a society, determine which ones to back?

Would Alan Turing get funding from the ARC? Fkeir David

Suppose a modern-day Alan Turing turns up to a funding committee, cap in hand, asking for money for his idea to develop a modern-day equivalent of his theory of a “Turing Machine” (he didn’t call it that, but that’s how it has since become known). He has no evidence for its usefulness or potential value. He doesn’t even know what it might possibly be good for.

Turing is planning to produce his (now famous) short paper for a philosophy journal, Mind, as a “performance indicator” in return for the funding from the public purse. He’s asking for several thousand dollars, mainly to fund research and development work for this idea, and to relieve him from a heavy university teaching load. Should the funding committee give him the money?

It’s likely that hard-nosed critics of the ARC would refuse his application and give him his marching orders. There is likely to be little recognition that this apparently simple little idea would, in time, spawn the digital revolution—arguably the most important revolution of the 20th century, which we are still feeling the effects of today. This idea would change everything, from medicine, to communications, literacy, and commerce. Nothing would be the same after it:

The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.

I am not suggesting that there is no wasteful spending in Arts funding. Clearly there is. I get as annoyed as others do when I see my taxes going to fund projects that, in my view, seem to have little obvious merit. However, I’d be prepared to admit my ignorance, and would be reluctant to dismiss such projects without having read the proposals in detail. My point is that over-the-top attacks on humanities funding simpliciter stands in need of a corrective.

Attacks on the purported extravagant use of public funds for humanities research should not be tantamount to disparaging the disciplines from whence they come - especially in the case of philosophy.

Reconsidering funding models

Here’s a positive suggestion for the funding of philosophical research, and humanities scholarship in general: greatly widen the selection and assessment requirements. I propose that all arts funding should be internationally assessed and funded by the collective, pooled resources of a global body set up for this purpose. Call it, for the sake of the argument, “The International Humanities Research Council”.

Perhaps the assessors on the council - not all of whom need be “experts”, but intelligent and interested parties - might be circulated regularly and often. A key rule might be that representatives from a country have to leave the room when a funding application from their own country is assessed. This way, there may be less likelihood of “cliques” occurring, and less chance of any coteries forming for the purpose of mutual backslapping.

There might also be less chance of the “Matthew Effect”, whereby academics who have been successful in getting grants tend to get more.

Once grant applications are “over the line” in terms of being deemed (in principle) worthy of funding, representatives from each country might then make “bids” for particular projects on the “open marketplace” of the council floor. Let’s imagine that all the applications for future humanities funding go into an international pool with our competitive neighbours who share our democratic ideals (US, UK, Japan, and so on). In principle, it need not be so restricted, for the humanities are important to us all.

Let’s also imagine that whoever funds the idea - whoever wins the “bid” - gets any benefits that might ensue. It’s winner takes all. The ideas themselves might be developed in Australia, but their benefits, if any, would go offshore if that’s where they are funded.

“The International Humanities Research Council”

What might happen in such a scenario? I’d expect that the naturally less risk adverse countries with bigger pockets (the US, for example) would take greater risks, and potentially obtain the greater yields from esoteric “blue-sky” ideas.

Countries with a penchant for florid prose, and post-modernist speculations (like France), might back projects with which it had broad philosophical sympathies. They would be welcome to them in my view.

Nations where philanthropists have a strong involvement in funding decisions might support esoteric topics of broad cultural and intellectual appeal (like the “History of the Emotions”). It’s a personal preference of course, but I can see how this kind of thing might be interesting and culturally enriching, even if it didn’t result in economic-spin offs. Not all innovations have to be measured in such terms.

Australia prefers to fund sporting events over humanities research projects AAP/Roland Weihrauch

Australia has a much lower budget, a degree of intolerance toward the humanities, and prefers to waste public money on large sporting events (which is rarely questioned). Such a country would benefit only from work that is deemed to be immediately and practically “useful” in some sense. They might miss out on benefiting from the really important ideas - such as Turing’s - that eventually garner a great deal of traction and lead to untold economic, technological and/or social advantages.

Historically, Australian innovations tend to be developed and profited from off-shore anyway, so perhaps we are used to this and it would be nothing new. The point is that through global comparisons, and bidding competition, we would quickly know which countries had a genuine interest in promoting humanities research and which didn’t. It would become clear which countries genuinely cared about the arts, and their place in a mature society.

In this scenario, international specialisations in the humanities might occur. This may not be a bad thing. Japan is already well-known as being pre-eminent in the applications of fuzzy logic to industry, known as the “fuzzy boom”. This localisation of humanities research might continue apace. With specialisation comes efficiency, and greater economic gains.

The outcomes of such a proposal also might be that international humanities research turns out to be funded quite well overall; perhaps better than at present, and there would be a diversity and spread of opinions with which to assess the value of the projects. Of course, ideas that appealed to no one would understandably fail to receive funding and would wither and die - as perhaps they should.

If nothing else, if implemented, this suggestion might stop the negative harping about “wasteful” government spending in the arts.

Does philosophical research need additional funding?

Like any discipline, philosophy is only as healthy as the funding it receives. And, like any other discipline, philosophy needs to pursue new avenues to stay fresh. Sometimes, but not always, this requires additional contributions from the public purse by means of ARC grants.

Can this be done without additional funding from the government? Unfortunately, the fact is that the routine business of merely being employed in a humanities faculty these days is insufficient for philosophical labours - Smart’s point about just needing “paper and pencil” notwithstanding.

This is especially the case in the cash-strapped, bureaucratically bloated, managerial tertiary sector that exists today. This perilous situation has been noted in more than one paper. Contrary to popular belief, academics are not well paid compared to politicians and business executives—though, admittedly, they are relatively well paid compared to academics in some other countries (who are paid poorly, so this does not say very much).

A 2009 study showed that academic salaries declined against average weekly earnings and a range of other professions. Being an academic in the tertiary sector today means being burdened with “administrivia” and having little time for research while being on average salary.

When funding is slashed across the tertiary sector, the first thing to go is usually support for the Arts and disciplines like philosophy. This results in a loss of staff and higher teaching loads. When academics do apply for money from funding bodies such as the ARC - and sadly, academics are now de facto revenue raisers for the institutions that employ them - it is invariably to fund research assistants, teaching relief, and the like.

The majority of money from humanities funding ends up in salaries for support staff and time-release. A lot of this is “on costs” for our cash-strapped universities to fund building maintenance and the like. This explains the seemingly exorbitant projects mentioned earlier. Applying for funding for these expenses are necessary evils in the contemporary tertiary environment if academics are to have hope of finding time to think and write about anything at all.

A different approach

A much more radical suggestion than the International Humanities Research Council - or perhaps something to consider in line with it - is giving grants for promising ideas without requiring academics to apply for them. This counterintuitive suggestion has been arrived at from a summary of several empirical studies that looked at the negative costs to productivity of applying for grant applications.

There are a number of points in its favour. Firstly, scientists in Australia spent the equivalent of five centuries preparing research grant proposals in 2012. As only 20.5 percent of applications were effective this means four centuries of wasted effort. As humanities researchers are demonstrably less successful in obtaining grants than scientists, this presumably means even greater waste.

Secondly, in a Canadian study it was found that the CAD$40,000 cost of preparing for a grant, and being rejected, exceeded the cost of giving all qualified investigators an average baseline grant of CAD$30,000.

Thirdly, net returns on grants are lower than if they were given at random. 


A number of alternative suggestions are considered in response to this: giving grants to everyone who requests them; allocating grants randomly; allocating on the basis of past track record; funding research on the basis only of an abstract.

I would not be partial to giving grants to everyone even if it could be afforded, for reasons mentioned earlier. There are limits to what is worth funding; and yes, among the many excellent proposals that are funded, there is probably some unnecessary waste.

However, something does need to be done to mitigate the waste of applying for grants. This seems an equally, if not more pressing, problem than the purported “waste” of some humanities research projects.

The practicality of philosophy 


This article is a partial response to those who are negatively judgemental about philosophical research, and who are intent on shamelessly bashing the humanities. I want to suggest these attitudes are frequently (if not always) misinformed.

These negative attitudes are particularly galling for humanities academics as they often formed rashly without having done the courteous thing of reading the ARC grant applications on which such projects are based, or only on the basis of reading the title and the 100-word summary.

Is it too much to ask for those critical of ARC grants to provide evidence that they have done due diligence and actually read the applications? Making assertions about waste is fair enough: making judgemental, uninformed assertions is poor form. I am particularly keen to defend philosophy, since examples from this discipline are so often unfairly held up to ridicule.

In funding philosophical research, we are, in effect, funding an oft-neglected, “poor cousin” discipline. This discipline has real practical outcomes for individuals and society as a whole, quite independently of the innovations and contributions to civilisation that it might provide.

Continually questioning funding for philosophy is false economics. This is so for a number of reasons, but the practical reasons are perhaps most surprising. As absurd as it may seem, philosophy is, in fact, one of the best subjects for students to study to get good grades. A 2011-12 survey of GRE scores by the Educational Testing Service noted that philosophy was the best major in terms of developing verbal and analytical writing skills, and among the top five in developing quantitative skills.

In the US, the discipline is recognised as being one of the most demanding, and over there at least, philosophy enrolments are soaring. As the US is a dynamic, innovative country that we frequently like to compare ourselves to, perhaps we should take notice. They may see something in the value of the arts that we don’t.

Unexpectedly, philosophy one of the best subjects for employability. Studies have shown that, while starting salaries of philosophy graduates might be less than those with business degrees, by mid-career, the salaries of philosophy graduates surpass those of marketing, communications, accounting and business management. And it is probably not necessary to mention the many examples of famous or successful people who majored in philosophy, and who turned into business or finance pioneers.

Business magnate George Soros studied philosophy at the London School of Economics EPA/Laurent Gillieron

The list is surprisingly long, and includes people one would least expect - financier George Soros and Paypal founder Peter Thiel, for example. Those who had “soft” college majors in other humanities disciplines also fare well (locally, the multimillionaire founder of “Jim’s Mowing”, Jim Penman, is a historian). Others have claimed unambiguously that business needs philosophy — an exhortation which runs against the grain of those who think the discipline is excessively funded.

It should be noted that the proportion of ARC funding that is directed towards humanities research is usually vastly overstated. In fact, it is abysmally low compared to funding directed toward the sciences. According to former ccience minister Kim Carr, the ratio was typically 80% to the sciences and 10% to the humanities. I am not suggesting at all that this balance is inappropriate. It seems fair and reasonable, as the sciences do require a greater share of government funding. I do, however, object to suggestions that the Arts receive an inflated share.

Why does it matter?

Does it really matter if the ARC, or our universities, fund and underwrite the occasional obscure research project in humanities? Are things so tight that we cannot speculate on things that do not have an immediate practical application?

Some of those esoteric ideas will have real traction and make a difference. Others won’t. This is the nature of taking a punt. But this is no different from other areas, for example, putting money into Olympic swimming teams, horse racing carnivals, or backing research for space exploration — and this funding is rarely questioned. My grandfather, a committed SP bookmaker in his day, used to say that all that racing ever produced was horseshit.

Has Hegel taken up more than his fair share of ARC funding? Underpuppy

To be sure, Hegel’s may not seem so germane these days, but - not being a specialist in the area - I would not bet on it without knowing more about it. I certainly would not rely on Brigg’s or Robb’s untutored opi nion of projects such as these. Personally, I’d need to read the project proposal myself before jumping to conclusions, and they should too.

Perhaps an argument might fairly be made that a project on Hegel, for example, has been excessively funded, and some of it is best directed elsewhere. In some cases this might be a fair point to make. However, this is a slightly different matter. This would warrant a detailed discussion about project budget items (usually rigorously dissected by the ARC). This does not warrant Brigg’s and others’ condescending comments about the “interesting thought bubbles” often pursued by academics.

In other words, it’s time for a little more subtlety in the discussion. The propositions: “All humanities research is wasteful” and “All humanities research is necessary” has been in opposition for a long time, and it is a tired and stale debate.

But in any case, benchmarking research on Hegel with path-breaking work on prostate cancer is more than a little unfair. Surely, a rich country such as ours has enough to go around. Though it is important to have some standards too: I draw the line at funding “postmodernist” views, for reasons I can’t go into.

But more to the point, where else would idle philosophical speculation be done if it were not done in our universities? With Australia’s poor record in philanthropy, I can’t see BHP or Rio Tinto putting their hands up to fund esoteric humanities research (Twiggy Forrest’s latest gift aside). This can only be done in our tertiary institutions. Arguably, that’s what they are there for.

One of the problems in this debate is that specialists in the humanities partly have themselves to blame. They often fail to sell themselves and the value of their work to the general public. They are not encouraged to be good at public engagement. This is partly a function of the peer-reviewed and competitive nature of the tertiary sector, and the degree of self-absorption that most areas of intellectual enquiry entail. It has much to do with the excessive managerialism in universities today.

It is also a function of lack of experience.

If philosophers were more akin to business people, and were required to make a “pitch” for their idea in simple, unambiguous language before their funding masters, or if the assessment process was broadened internationally as I have described, this might be better for all concerned. The recurring debate about “waste” in the humanities might dry up, or at least be placed on a more intelligent footing. A good thing all-round.

Philosopher John Armstrong puts the problem like this:

Fundamental and blue-sky research … is possible on a large scale only with the profound consent of a whole society. And universities—which are the natural homes of intellectual ambition—are not organised to secure this consent. Those who are fired by the love of knowledge do not see securing such support as fundamental to what they do.

Yet, if we are to carry off the huge task of gaining such committed and widespread support we would have to devote ourselves to a vast project of engagement. We would have to have this task written into the DNA of research culture. And this is the fateful irony.

We want the support that requires a great public but we don’t want to do the things that would win the loyalty of a great public. At worst, we want to demonise the philistines and have their taxes pay for our noble enthusiasms.

Fair enough, I say.

In conclusion

But in the end, providing a small amount of public money for funding research into the humanities is not about curing cancer, getting a job or making money.

It is about you. Suppose in your dotage you suddenly acquired a passionate interest in the use of bird imagery in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Perhaps you become fascinated by an obscure lemma of substructural logics, or wanted to know all about the theories of a long-forgotten Polish aesthetician. Where, in the panoply of human endeavour, would you go to satisfy your yearning for knowledge?

Naturally, you would go a university library, or a reputable website or journal. This is where one will find the published work of scholars in the humanities. Unfortunately, this work does not come out of thin air. Nor is it free.

Phillipa Martyr’s “test” of whether humanities researchers would fund their research from their own pockets is as absurd as suggesting that physicists buy their own oscilloscopes. The sad thing is, on Brigg’s, Robb’s and Martyr’s economic rationalist thinking, this important research would dry up completely.

It would, indeed, be a farewell to Arts. We’d have healthy prostates but that’s about it.

Humanities research, whether immediately practical or not, is rightly funded from the public purse, and should always be so. It is a measure of our cultural maturity to provide such funding in an intelligent, thoughtful, and measured way, but it also makes good social and economic sense. Long may it continue.

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68 Comments sorted by

  1. Pat Moore

    gardener

    A comprehensive defence Martin in terms of historical examples of proving philosophy to be useful to society which reminded me of the accused last words grovelling from the dock before His Honour prior to being sentenced and led off to execution? or incarceration?

    Understand tenured persons have to be diplomatic and careful where they put their feet and tongues. However a candid account of the real politic of the matter would unleash quite a torrent of unpc unpleasantries providing a fuller picture…

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    1. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Martin Davies

      There's obviously an insiders' (antlike) view... inhouse, academy housekeeping matters under the current funding realities and a WAYOUT outsiders' view like that of greg's and my own.....different perspectives with an abyss between? And no lingua franca? But I must say you academics for some reason come across as genuinely innocent children when it comes to (under) estimating,(seriously) the nature and intent of your "cut the funding" opposition, Bolt blitzgreigs for shorthand. Where have you…

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    2. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Thanks Pat. You have a unique style.

      I am not much of a conspiracy theorist, not because it is unbelievable (it is) but because I just don't think people or political parties are that well organised. A conspiratorial agenda is certainly conceivable, but that does not make it true.

      I am not keen on the Kennedy assassination conspiracy either (though if I had to believe in one of them that would be it!) 50 years on this November it still fascinates.

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    3. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Pat Moore

      History and culture in the Humanities in the past 50 years has been taught and understood almost purely from a "progressive" angle. Any adjustment back to the "right" will be to balance the bias that's been there for far too long. Whether this will lead to "corporatized research projects" is another discussion, but at this stage history just needs to be brought back from the attempts by academics to induce guilt into Australians and toward one that is relatively ideologically free.

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    4. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Martin Davies

      This hoary old chestnut of hanging the "conspiracy theory" label on disagreeable truths/ factual political observations that the one who hangs the dismissive tag disagrees with/has vested interests against, has been debunked years ago. (And greg included a good link below on the issue.) It's a smoke and mirror method of deflecting understanding, an ideological tactic of labelling and devaluing authentic criticism of a political situation/power structure. And it is designed to prevent widespread…

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    5. greg rzesniowiecki

      being and doing

      In reply to Martin Davies

      Hi Martin, perhaps you might opine on what is conspiracy theorism? And why confine your survey of investigation to the political parties? There are other elements in government and generally that have agendas and the means to advance them.

      I here detect a conspiracy to avoid engaging with my offerings. It may not be overt as in having actual conversation about tactics, it may be implicit or a tacit understanding of those in a class or interest group.

      Does a conspiracy exist if the fact of it…

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  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    The funding costs are inflated because that's what the system rewards. When you go for promotion or whatever, nobody gives a damn about the value of your contribution to knowledge. It's about how man $$ you've brought in (even if they all get dispersed outside the institution). Try talking about your paper and pencil to a promotion committee.

    I grant, therefore I am.

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    1. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Thanks for the comment Mat. I'm not endorsing the grant process. As I say: 'sadly, academics are now de facto revenue raisers for the institutions that employ them'.

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  3. Thomas Fields

    "progressive" watcher

    Good article.I liked the examples of where philosophy has had practical outcomes.

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  4. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I find it extraordinary that a scholar would attack a grant without having even read the application, let alone having a background in the field. This seems to be no better than the Coalition's waste watch exercises over the years.

    There are several problems with the proposed international humanities research council. Grant funding supports not only a particular piece of work, but also contributes to the institutionalisation of research. That would be lost or at least greatly attenuated by puting all research grants onto an international market.

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    1. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Thanks for the comments Gavin. But I think you missed something, or chose to ignore it. Or perhaps I wasn't clear enough.

      I am trying to set up the perennial tension between those who think all Arts research is a complete waste (the Andrew Bolts, etc) -- on which there seems to be a growing yearly chorus -- and those within the discipline who think everything they do is essential to the future of humankind for now and evermore. In the best tradition I am assuming the Bolt position has some merit…

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  5. greg rzesniowiecki

    being and doing

    To both Pat Moore and Martin Davies.

    Martin thank you for your thoughts I found them illuminating, notwithstanding this I will offer criticism.

    Pat allergy or allegory? You seem to like allegory.

    Until this article I'd not heard of 'Smart', I'm a backyard philosopher. What a brilliant name for one so clever. Cheers more allegory?

    I've been focusing on Climate Change and Energy of recent. In fact I supply my own pens and 'puter to engage the material from the noosphere.

    As a poor amateur…

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    1. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to greg rzesniowiecki

      On you greg. The passion to practice Philosophy and metaphysical poetry is an instinctual irresistible drive? (I remember you writing/talking about poetry once before and the synchronistic signposts of the journey? I also am a poet and concur.) And this type of bent leads one to coming face to face with Philosophy's living sinuous movements and Be-ing through time and space?

      As you note of Socrates (& I of Bruno) philosophers can be serious threats to the statusquo....pass the hemlock? And…

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    2. greg rzesniowiecki

      being and doing

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Greetings Pat,

      named for the one who eradicated the serpent from the Emerald Ilse. The serpent was once revered for the wisdom he offered. The allegory in the apple and Eve. The body of knowledge and truth. Why slay him? You incarnate yet again to remedy that past act? :-)

      I was wondering why I'd not gone to a prior engagement..

      In life there are things one calls coincidence, correspondence and serendipity. I noted your response in my inbox and before commencing writing went out to fertilize…

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    3. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Pat Moore

      "Where HAS Philosophy been in the "global warming debate"/fight to the death to save the biosphere greg?"

      What can philosophy add to the discussion? It's a case for the empirical sciences, is it not? Philosophy has no right to moralise on the "global warming debate" until it's gathered facts from the empirical sciences.

      "It's been safely locked away, playing with the famous dead bodies of the Great White Philosophers of the Western Canon up in the ivory tower apparently."

      Sounds racist. Can we dismiss and ridicule black philosophers or Asian philosophers? I very much doubt it. In fact, racializing the philosophers is one of the central problems with philosophy and the Humanities. Many are dismissed simply because they are "dead white men", and not because of the ideas they espouse. I can just image the outcry by "progressives" if a black philosopher was disregarded purely because he was black.

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    4. greg rzesniowiecki

      being and doing

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      Hiya Thomas,

      I'm not a great reader of philosophers, and make no distinction on the appearance of the vehicle, holden or ford, black or white, it's the driver whose ideas hold merit that is of import. I've a few tomes and at some point I'll sit down and undertake a review of the development of truth and fact. I occasionally read into papers of immediate interest. This to Martin on conspiracies;

      http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/Staff/CharlesPigden/CTCW%202%20wd.pdf

      It's enough to understand…

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    5. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      Male White Western philosophical canon Thomas is by necessity, not universal. It is gender, race, geographic and generally class specific and so unconsciously privileges that particular combination of perspectives. It is part of an ideology of dominance. Pluralism values other perspectives equally.

      It is not a matter of "moralising" for Philosophy to contribute to the climate change debate but is a matter of moral responsibility that it does, and without fear or favour, owing to the nature of the beast. As greg demonstrates here there are massive amounts of scientific facts available. Philosopher Simon Blackburn points out that it is not participating sufficiently because it is under threat, as the Humanities are generally, through purposeful (and politicised) withdrawal of funding and is being devalued in the current zeitgeist against utility hard sciences.

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    6. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Pat Moore

      "Male White Western philosophical canon Thomas is by necessity, not universal. It is gender, race, geographic and generally class specific and so unconsciously privileges that particular combination of perspectives. It is part of an ideology of dominance. Pluralism values other perspectives equally".

      This is wrong on so many levels I don't know where to start.

      1.The philosophy they teach in academia is open to anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender/sex.

      2. Reducing philosophy to the race, gender/sex, and class of the philosopher does not refute the ideas espoused within their philosophy.

      3. The only "philosophers" in academia writing in regards to sex/gender, class, and race/ethnicity are the neo-Marxists. And, their judgements are anti-male and anti-white; never anti-female or anti-non-white ethnicity.

      It's little wonder the Humanities has such a bad reputation outside of academia when people such as yourself perpetuate blatantly sloppy reasoning.

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  6. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    I'd just have to say first off, this is one of the most thoughtful article I've read here on The Conversation. It covers quite a lot of ground, so I'll only comment on a few aspects.

    I'm a through-and-through scientist, having pretty much only studied science subjects at university (with some languages). Ironically, I just graduated with a Doctor in Philosophy, having never studied philosophy (at least formally). It is only with the last year or two that I've started reading the likes of Kuhn…

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  7. Richard Hunter

    logged in via Twitter

    I am sorry I found this article very waffly and not a good defence of the need to fund blue sky research of all kinds. The examples expounded on (at great length) are for the most part obvious, more troubling was the author's seemingly amivalent attitude to what he percieves as 'waste'. How can your wxamples of productive philiosophy not be a waste but a study of 15th century Florentine credit instruments be so on the basis of a title. As Gavin Moodie says at least read the full application before drawing your conclusion.

    A couple of other points, you say "Countries such as the US rarely have agonising debates about the relevance of the arts like we do." I am sorry but they do, members of Congress regularly criticise funding for Arts and Humanities. A Chomsky's research, important though it was, was initially funded by US Defence grants. Top that for conflicted funding means and outcomes!

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Richard Hunter

      I agree Richard. US representatives frequently attack research grants they don't like: 'Virtually every year, like clockwork, some member of Congress or another questions the legitimacy of research that peer reviewers for federal agencies have selected as worthy of support. The lawmakers behind these efforts typically focus on their desire to protect the American taxpayer, but the targets of their enmity tend to be studies on such topics as gay people in foreign lands. (Odd, that.)' (Lederman, 2009).

      The Republican controlled Reps recently banned grants to political science on the grounds that some projects have criticised conservatives.

      Lederman, Doug (2009) One-man peer review, Inside Higher Ed, 28 July, retrieved 4 August 2009 from
      http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/07/28/issa

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  8. Account Deleted

    logged in via email @drdrb.net

    Why undercut a good defence of general philosophical research, even research that seems abstruse, queer and of no immediate benefit, with cheap shots at post-modernism and LGBTI-related research? One of the chief contributions of post-modernism (for all the verbiage that came along with it) was to undercut any suggestion that the subject is "just a person" and therefore the academic (invariably, an older white heterosexual (or closeted) male) could presume to speak without qualification for the entire…

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    1. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Account Deleted

      See above for the first point. I needed an example of the kind of thing that anti-funding people attack. But it does not follow I am attacking it myself (although I do see why they are attacked - which is a slightly different matter). The substantive point of the article is to try and get beyond the perennial tension between 1) those who think all Arts research is a complete waste (the Andrew Bolts, etc) -- on which there seems to be a growing yearly chorus -- and 2) those within the discipline…

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    2. Thomas Fields

      "progressive" watcher

      In reply to Account Deleted

      What does any of this have to do with academia? The first issue is a bureaucratic issue and has nothing to do with academic research, and the second appears to be some kind of moral problem, which, I also fail to see what academia has to do with. Academia already teaches ethics from a Kantian, Utilitarian and Aristotelian point of view. LGBTI ought to come under the umbrella of one of these, rather than having a specific branch of "ethics" for themselves.

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  9. Cathryn McCormack
    Cathryn McCormack is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Lecturer (Teaching and Learning) at Southern Cross University

    I very much appreciate the thrust of Martin's argument and examples, and am in complete accord with the view that the humanities must be funded.

    However, I have some thoughts on the "wastefulness" of the grant application process. In my work I support university staff applying for grants from the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT). Given the tiny amount of funding available from the OLT (approx $10m each year), their focus is tight and applications must clearly articulate: project outcomes…

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Cathryn McCormack

      I understand the OLT's success rate to be about the same as the ARC's. I suggest the relevant difference is not in the narrowness of the disciplines that the OLT supports, but the narrowness of the objectives that it has. If a humanities research granting body had such tightly specified objectives it would exclude much speculative research, which is exactly the sort of research that should be supported in universities.

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  10. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    "Prima facie however, a project of this kind appears to be a case of simply needing paper, pencils and a good library. What justification could there be for such vast expense?"
    If you tried to do this yourself, you would find out pretty quickly. If you read the proposal, there would be a justification of all expenses, because that's how the system works.
    I suggest we turn a critical lens on the medical funding system. I am sure there are many projects that are also 'wasteful' and poorly conceived. Why assume this is a 'problem' only relevant to humanities?

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    1. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Alice Gorman

      Thanks for the comment Alice. A few people tweeted on the pencil and paper point, and yes, I have 'done it myself'.

      I explain the reasons for the "vast expense" for such projects in the later section when I say:

      'The majority of money from humanities funding ends up in salaries for support staff and time-release. A lot of this is “on costs” for our cash-strapped universities to fund building maintenance and the like. ***This explains the seemingly exorbitant projects mentioned earlier. ***Applying…

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    2. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Alice Gorman

      An obvious elephant in the room is that most of the cost of a grant is for salaries and overheads. Having libraries, pen and paper, etc. is all well and good but when people would have to do the work on their own time as volunteers it's obviously going to limit the kind of research outputs you get in the end. Not to mention that overheads on grants helps universities support infrastructure like libraries.

      Even on science grants salaries and overheads are still the greatest cost of research. I think the lack of appreciation of this also comes into the forefront of discussions like these - sadly I think a lot of your typical 'layman' (for lack of a better word) or politician types look at the cost of research and think the cost of science is acceptable since there's all the 'high tech science lab' costs, and then look down on humanities research as 'why does it cost so much?', probably unaware that in both cases the salaries and overheads form the vast bulk of the cost involved.

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    3. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Chris Booker

      Yes Chris, and I mention the 'on costs' etc in the piece as an explanation for the *seemingly exorbitant* ARC projects I mention as examples.

      I do think that researchers need to confront this "all Arts funding is wasteful garbage" thesis. I used to think it was only loonies that held this view, but the chorus is getting louder. We don't counter it, however, by retreating to an insular "all Arts funding is necessary" thesis though -- as some of it probably isn't (I am uninformed and neutral on the examples I chose). To advance the debate we need to move beyond the binaries.

      We also need to communicate research better and in clearer terms that the layman understands. How that is best done I don't know.

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    4. Alice Gorman

      Lecturer at Flinders University

      In reply to Martin Davies

      Thanks for your response, Martin.I have to confess I stopped reading at that point to calm myself down and went to make a cup of coffee.
      But it's not all just university administration costs, and we shouldn't underestimate the need for teaching relief - grants are like a second job on top of a full-time teaching load without that. How do you, for example, access documents in archives interstate or overseas requiring travel, present your results at a conference, hold a meeting with Traditional Owners, stakeholders, or even your own research team, without money? Universities, in my experience, rarely provide enough money to cover the costs of attending even one domestic conference a year, and if you can't build that into your grants, then you are unable to perform a core academic activity! There is a large amount of self-subsidisation. It would be interesting to know the extent of this invisible contribution to research budgets. Has anyone ever gathered data on this?

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    5. Tim Pitman

      Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Alice Gorman

      Hi Alice

      In 2008 the (then) Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research undertook an initial study to examine the full costs associated with research in universities. It identified 1.104 billion worth of
      indirect costs for the Australian university sector for the 2008-09 period. The more research intensive the university, the greater the associated costs. Whilst the methodology of the study has been challenged and the actual dollar amount is questioned, no-one has argued that even when a university is given specific (e.g. ARC) funding for a research project, it needs to contribute its own costs.

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    6. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Tim Pitman

      "no-one has argued that even when a university is given specific (e.g. ARC) funding for a research project, it needs to contribute its own costs"

      - Indeed, but I took Alice (perhaps wrongly?) to be talking about self-subsidisation in the sense of academics paying for research expenses such as travel and materials out of their own pockets. We do a lot of that, at all levels.

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    7. Tim Pitman

      Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Hi Patrick

      Apologies, my statement can be inferred two ways - I didn't mean "need" and in "should" I meant "need" as in it is a reality, this is what happens. This includes academics paying for their own research.

      Tim

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    8. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Tim Pitman

      Whoops: I took "it" to refer to the university, not the project (and by extension the researcher).

      But yes I understood 'need' here in the descriptive rather than the normative sense. Wait, now I'm starting to understand why people don't like philosophers... :)

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    9. Alice Gorman

      Lecturer at Flinders University

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Yes that is what I meant, Patrick, but it is interesting to know about the study Tim mentions. I'm currently having a "holiday" in the private sector, and I'm not expected to pay work-related expenses out of my salary! (Or purchase my own laptop, phone, business cards and stationary). It would be interesting to see some figures on this, don't you think?

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    10. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Alice Gorman

      Interesting little side conversation that's going on here. I wonder if there's any surveys of how many people working in academia have stumped up for job-related costs out of their own pay? Seems widespread from my experience.

      Another similar one would be how many people 'take leave' and then just work anyway because there's so much to do, or not enough grant funding to cover an annual leave payout?

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    11. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Chris Booker

      True, but I suspect there are prolly still many acas 'working from home' doing the shopping, painting the house, etc. I think it is better to leave the issue to academics' discretion and judgement. It is good that people are investing their own resources in their work, whether thru interest, commitment or belief that it will advance their careers. But does this really need to be counted?

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    12. Tim Pitman

      Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Chris Booker

      It's an understandably grey area. The survey to which I referred considered the following when they were indirect costs not covered by the research grant:

      - Access to basic facilities
      - Access to specialised facilities
      - Staff salaries
      - Travel
      - Publication costs

      So in respect to your question, Chris, I would infer that in some cases staff would take leave to do the research but then flex the time later, in which case it is the university covering the cost, but at other times they don't flex it back, in which case it is out of their own pocket.

      You would also have to factor in tax returns i.e. when academics pay for something out of their own pocker but claim it back through tax later.

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  11. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    There's a great deal to like about this piece, thank you. I do worry though that as in a great many pieces defending the value of philosophy, this spends a lot of time trying to articulate the instrumental, practical value of the discipline. It's all true, and it deserves to be sung enthusiastically from the rooftops: philosophy does equip its students with invaluable reasoning skills for the labour market, and it can and does lead to unexpected benefits for science, technology, culture etc. All…

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    1. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Just to harp on further about my 'science is a humanities subject' chestnut...

      I think the same can be said to a great extent for science. It seems somewhat strange to me that science is almost always viewed through this lens of 'science leads to technology' or 'science as potential improver of health outcomes', when I suspect for many scientists it is the nature of what is learnt and the changing perspective that brings, or simply the process of questioning in itself that produces any personal…

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    2. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Thanks for your comments Patrick. As a fellow philosophy graduate of course I concur with the "intrinsically valuable" point. But this does not cut it with anyone except philosophers, informed scientists and the intelligent, well-read layperson. It certainly doesn't counter the anti-funding attacks.

      A large part of NSW is presently on fire. Question: Is money best spend on Hegel because he has intrinsic importance (because he "matters") or on better fire prevention strategies, modelling or whatever…

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    3. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Martin Davies

      Thanks Martin. I agree with much of what you say here, particularly in terms of strategy.

      There seems to be two importantly different senses of ‘waste’ going on what you've written. Call these:

      W1: Projects that lack value relative to other more practically urgent research projects (Hegel vs. Superbugs – sorry to hear about the ear by the way, hope that comes good quickly)

      W2: Projects that lack value just in their own terms. (Some of your comments about postmodernism – which I’d argue with…

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    4. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Dear Patrick: Yes I like this analysis very much. The whole debate needs to be seen in terms like this instead of the usual ranting on both sides.

      If the article did anything useful it prompted your reply. There's probably a paper of greater length in this.

      Best wishes
      M

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    5. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      That sounds interesting, there's possibly enough depth in it, and it is certainly topical, and of clear relevance. Normally I'd say "count me in", but it turns out I am currently in the process of being made involuntarily redundant in a dramatic workplace restructure (along with many others) -- although I'll remain a Principal Fellow (honorary).

      This is not all bad news as I'll get a generous payout after being there 11 years and I wanted to move on anyway. I am presently applying for things, and I was even thinking of putting in an application for the lectureship at Deakin (although one of your colleagues told me I've probably been out of "straight" Philosophy for too long to be competitive -- which is almost certainly right, so maybe I won't).

      I may even try my hand at something outside academia, e.g., in the publishing industry, or perhaps journalism. I'll let you know.

      Best wishes

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    6. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Martin Davies

      Dreadfully sorry to hear that Martin! (I'm afraid my alma mater has something of a history of doing things like this). I hope at least that it leads to an exciting next move for you, but even so, it's a crappy thing to have happen.

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  12. Tim Pitman

    Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

    A discussion regarding the relative value of research (philosophy or otherwise) is worth having. What is unworthy is personally attacking the perceived value of another scholar's research when your argument is based on, using your own words "at face value at least"; "Personally, I’m not that interested" and "I have not read the application".

    This is disappointing, given your article has a strong focus on philosophy, which is underpinned by a reliance on rational argument.

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    1. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Tim Pitman

      Thanks for the comments Tim. I think you'll find, if you read it again, that I am not attacking anyone.

      I say that '...*I can see why some people question* why an investigation of this nature requires such an investment. I stress that I have not read the application in question, which, for all I know, might well make a persuasive case'. I also make a point of saying I don't raise these examples out of disrespect for the scholars or their projects.

      The substantive point of the article is to…

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  13. Sam Jandwich

    Policy Analyst

    Martin - In my case you're preaching to the converted, and to be honest I don't have time to read your article in full right now...

    And my second qualifying remark is that one approach to life that I tend not to put much store in is cynicism (at least in the contemporary sense of the word), but here I do wonder whether there is something a little more sinister going on than we might imagine - namely social engineering.

    From my relatively limited direct exposure to politicians, one thing I…

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    1. Martin Davies

      Associate Professor in Higher Education at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Sam Jandwich

      Thanks for your comment Sam (I guess you are sick of "Jam Sandwich" jokes.)

      When you get around to reading it, you will see that I am not completely opposed to the conservative line -- though I think it, like its opposite, is overstated. The substantive point of the article is to try and get beyond the perennial tension between 1) those who think all Arts research is a complete waste (the Andrew Bolts, etc) -- on which there seems to be a growing annual chorus -- and 2) those within the discipline…

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    2. greg rzesniowiecki

      being and doing

      In reply to Martin Davies

      I found this today; http://www.smh.com.au/world/climate-change-controversy-takes-a-philosophical-turn-20131011-2vdt7.html

      This is the direction I've been taking. What is philosophy saying about climate change. And also suggesting that philosophy step up and be activist about this important ethical question.

      I acknowledge that your article at the Conversation initiated this quest to find what philosophy is about with the issue, so cheers there; here's some philosophers sharing their stuff…

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  14. greg rzesniowiecki

    being and doing

    New York Times today on the same theme, hard sciences trumping the humanities in the funding rounds;

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/education/as-interest-fades-in-the-humanities-colleges-worry.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131031&_r=0&pagewanted=all

    It's a materialistic World in Academia. I wonder who helped create the climate?

    Also found this on an ethical perspective on the Earth and her right to be. Presenting Polly Higgins lawyer for Earth and against Ecocide;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EuxYzQ65H4

    I love the humanities and the sciences, mine is a study from outside your hallowed halls, nevertheless I truly appreciate the gift you bring, thank you.

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  15. Mister Anderson

    Student

    Am I alone in thinking that the debate about the value of philosophy to society could be resolved with some rigorous philosophical discourse? Oh wait that's simply an absurd thought... I'll go back to burning books now.

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    1. Mister Anderson

      Student

      In reply to Mister Anderson

      Oh also - on a less facetious note - thank you Martin for the wonderful article and the defense of one of humanities most wonderful inventions - from a very keen philosophy undergrad.

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  16. Ryan Brown

    logged in via Facebook

    "For example, does the country really need to spend A$325,183 on a topic about “the experiences of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people in natural disasters”? LGBTI people are, after all, just people. Or $578,792 on the history of an ignored credit instrument in Florentine economic and social and religious life from 1570-1790? I have no disrespect for the researchers, or their projects, but there is a case for claiming that some projects should perhaps not be funded at all."

    A very strong case. Jesus Christ wtf? That stuff like this gets millions of dollars and we have people trying to live on a couple hundred dollars a week (newstart etc) drives me ballistic. Whoever OK'd this stuff is a traitor to the country plain and simple; this is anti-Australianism in its highest form--pure contempt for the people of Australia. Absolutely disgusting.

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