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Is this really how we want to decide where research funding should be allocated? Shutterstock

A pub brawl over research funding doesn’t benefit any of us

Here we go again. On Monday, we were interested to see The Daily Telegraph’s Natasha Bita and 2GB broadcaster Ray Hadley making a strong fist of implying they would make good directors of Australia’s research funding system, supported by a college of experts in suburban pubs.

In this piece in the Telegraph, Bita provides us with some examples of what are headlined “‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research”.

Studies lined up for ridicule included a project to “investigate warfare in the ancient Tongan state through a study of earthwork fortifications”; another on “whether colleagues chatting in open-plan offices ‘creates annoyance’ and affects productivity”; and an investigation of the “post World War II evolution of the Australian university campus”.

Hadley joined in the ruck, suggesting that the Australian Research Council (ARC) should be forced to “justify its grants in the front bar of a pub in western Sydney or northside Brisbane”.

Get a new hobby horse folks, this one’s dead

It’s all so sadly familiar: lazy swipes by lazy blowhards at lazy academics lazing their way through granting procedures (notwithstanding the fact that these procedures are hyper-competitive). It seems like this has happened nearly every year since taxpayer dollars started being spent on science and research.

In 2014, Fox News joined with Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith in lambasting “wasted” US National Science Foundation money. In 2013, while in opposition, Australian Liberal MP Jamie Briggs condemned “completely over-the-top” and “ridiculous” grants.

As is now standard, these attackers often stress that they’re not against science and research per se; they’re just upset that research they don’t value is taking money away from the research they reckon really matters.

It seems all such commentators really know what valuable research looks like and what it does not. And in Australia they apparently also know exactly whom to call on to back them up.

All roads lead to a western Sydney pub

If you’re Ray Hadley, for example, the only way to collect genuine, representative views on things we should value – and therefore fund – is to go to a pub in western Sydney. It’s as if these pubs are populated by the most genuine Australians: people united in a single dream of how the perfect Australia should look, and moreover that it’s the right, perhaps only, dream.

In Ray’s view, discourse in these Utopian drinking establishments represents the true north of Australian public opinion, which naturally includes how best to prioritise research funding.

But why on earth would this be our yardstick for measuring value?

If we’re going to talk about what people do and don’t value, ask us what we think about motor sport, AFL, or hipster poetry slams. We’re not huge fans. But saying that doesn’t mean we think they are without some intrinsic value, or aren’t incredibly important to others, or shouldn’t be supported by the government or community at large.

You see, people differ. Sometimes we are interested in things that others aren’t, and that’s OK. That’s part of living in societies and agreeing to hand over a proportion of our income in order to maintain, and nurture, these societies. And it’s not as if the government doesn’t fund things like sport.

Being different is damned useful

Over the last ten thousand years or so, humans have come up with this great thing called specialisation. Instead of everyone being a food-collecting, house-building, animal-husbanding generalist, we’ve discovered that having some people excel at spouting confected rage on the radio, and other people being good at assessing the quality of research, is a good thing for us as a society.

So for Australian society, how could an idealised, homogeneous subset of working-class (and typically white male) pub-goers be the ultimate litmus test for deciding if something is of value to the whole country?

In what possible world would they be the sole, and best, representatives of all Australian people – all taxpayers, all parents, all community groups, everyone? In what possible world is any single demographic group going to be?

There are innumerable potential problems out there, so many that we can’t be sure we even know what all of them are, better yet which are most important to invest money and research effort in.

And it’s impossible to tell which individual idea or piece of research might trigger the next revolutionary breakthrough. Few people anticipated that optimising radio telescopes would yield Wi-Fi, or that bird watching would lead to an understanding of evolution, or that the musings of a few philosophers would transform our economy.

We don’t know precisely what research should be funded today, and neither do Hadley, or Bita, or the individual researchers submitting their research grants, “absurd” or otherwise. We’re sure we would all agree that investing in anything is risky, so like any sensible investor, society diversifies when allocating its collective research dollars.

And to the degree that anyone decides where the money should be spent, it should be people who have the knowledge and expertise to understand and judge the relative merits of research proposals.

Of course, we prioritise a sizeable chunk of the total research kitty to certain areas, pursuits, problems and interests. But to arbitrarily decide that a research area is literally of no value because five guys in a pub in a particular part of the country might laugh at the grant proposal title? Who’s being absurd now?

Is this really just about exchanging cathartic rants?

It’s fair to say that some of our colleagues in academia are unquestionably as dismissive of the priorities of Ray Hadley’s mythical, homogeneous, working class pub-goer as those pub-goers allegedly are of them.

It’s also fair to say that we from the research side of town could do more to be available, relevant and intelligible to people who would like to ask questions of us, to know more about what we do, and perhaps to make suggestions about what we should do. This is, at least in part, a failure of the research class to reach out beyond its own borders.

But we also have to ask: how much do people want to be reached out to? We ourselves wouldn’t want people constantly cluttering our Facebook timelines, inboxes, Twitter feeds and pub chats with attempts to make us like motor sports, AFL, hipster poetry slams or Donald Trump.

Honestly, we’re happy for other people to prioritise spending money (yes, even sacred taxpayer money) on things even if we don’t personally value them. We also hope that in turn perhaps they might be able to be accept us wanting to know more about the post World War II evolution of the Australian university campus.

In the end, perhaps the solution to this constantly rehashed problem of conflicting priorities is simply to acknowledge that people will always have conflicting priorities, and think about how best to live alongside each other: mythical, homogeneous pub-goer and irrelevant, out-of-touch academic alike?

Not all differences of opinion are problems that need to, or even can, be solved.

Perhaps instead of periodically lobbing abusive word-bombs at each other via our media outlet of choice, we could all occasionally go to a pub halfway between Western Sydney and the University of Sydney, ask each other a few questions, and raise a glass to the wonder that is the diversity of Australian culture. Surely we’d agree we’ve all benefited from that.

Will Grant will be online for an Author Q&A between 10 and 11am AEST on Wednesday, 24 August, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.

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