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Keeping Christopher Contented

Book scholar.

“Write it to be read by Christopher Pyne.”

This advice was given to a colleague by his university’s research office as he finalized his application for an Australian Research Council grant.

It isn’t as though we weren’t warned. In September 2013, before the Coalition won government, the Daily Telegraph revealed that “Abbott vows to cut futile research”. The government-in-waiting would crack down on “waste” including grants to “obscure” research.

Among the “increasingly ridiculous” ARC grants it picked out to deride in its media release were a philosophical inquiry into notions of the self, a study of sexuality in Islamic Egypt and an investigation of the role of art in understanding climate change.

The conservatives have form for attacks on intellectual freedom and university independence. In 2005 Andrew Bolt savaged the ARC for a number of grants it had made, claiming it had been captured by “Marxists”, “leftists” and “peek-in-your-pants researchers fixated on gender or race”.

Teased about it by his cabinet colleagues, Education Minister Brendan Nelson secretly cancelled a number of approved ARC projects. He then attempted to impose a political filter between the decisions of qualified experts and funds held by the ARC, a filter that took the form of a three-member vetting panel chaired by right-wing journalist P.P. McGuiness.

For a time, the tide of populism was resisted by Labor’s Education Minister Kim Carr, who took the view that the allocation of ARC grants should be left to the experts, rather than know-nothing newspaper commentators. A former history teacher, Carr mounted a spirited defence of the value of the humanities and social sciences.

Carr seemed to understand that it matters deeply to us as a people that we attempt to understand what makes our society tick and what we can learn from history and other cultures. Against the rise of neo-liberalism, the humanities and social sciences exist because without them we are reduced to utility maximizing machines.

We stop being human when we stop asking the questions humans have always asked, including, in the words of Patrick Stokes, “the nature of what we are, what exists, and of our place in the universe”.

University capture

The universities themselves have to varying degrees succumbed to the same market ideology. The Chief Executive of Universities Australia believes that the central role of universities is “securing national long-term economic and social prosperity”. Social prosperity? What is that? One those meaningless phrases that we nevertheless know the meaning of.

Does immersing oneself in Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric, studying Nietzsche’s madman speech, understanding shifting perceptions of the body, or investigating the changing nature of citizenship add to our “social prosperity”?

Where do these fit into the new priority areas for ARC funding? Here they are:

  • Food

  • Soil

  • Water

  • Transport

  • Cybersecurity

  • Energy

  • Resources

  • Advanced manufacturing

  • Environmental change

  • Health

How do scholars in the humanities and social sciences, hoping for time away from teaching to advance their disciplines, craft their ARC applications to fit into this utilitarian frame? What do they say about the “impact” of their research when confronted with such a crude view of the world? Maybe they just have to lie. Maybe lying is justified. After all, before his election Abbott lied about taking a hands-off approach to university funding.

Now, it seems, university research offices take it as read that all successful grant applications will be vetted by the Minister for Education, now Simon Birmingham. Perhaps the Minster delegates the task in the first instance to a junior staffer who puts them to the Andrew Bolt test, placing a red sticker on anything suspicious.

So the savvy academic will have her political radar switched on as she writes her proposal’s title and summary. She will have a fair idea of what her peers look for and admire, but how can she know what the current Minister for Education wants?

Was he a culture warrior in his university days? Is he willing to shrug off mockery from his cabinet colleagues? Will he argue the toss with Bolt? Should she start reading the Daily Telegraph to pick up clues as to what’s in and what’s out?

Or does she not bother.

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