Facing attacks, humanties academics should embrace a debate about the value of our work

The humanities in Australia seem to be under attack. Last week it was revealed that the former education Minister Simon Birmingham had blocked approximately $4 million dollars of funding for humanities projects that had been approved by the Australian Research Council (ARC). Defending his position on Twitter, Birmingham said:

“I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.” Do you disagree, @SenKimCarr? Would Labor simply say yes to anything?”

After significant pressure on this issue, this week the current education minister, Dan Tehan, announced that “Academics will soon be forced to prove their research is in the “national interest” when they apply for federal funding.” An increased stringency around a national interest test (which already exists by the way) is likely to hit humanities research hardest, with the humanities often struggling to meet very narrowly defined parameters of ‘national interest’, which are often focused on things like economic growth, scientific advancement etc.

These attacks have been met with a swift response from the academic community, with many Universities and peak bodies coming out to defend the humanities and to stand up for the peer review process and freedom of investigation. As the debate continues however, I think we have to be careful however in how we approach this issue.

There is a tendency from some to focus responses to these sorts of attacks around the value of ‘peer review’. The argument is that these projects have gone through a rigorous, independent (and therefore absent of politics) process, and that this process should be honoured. This is often focused around emphasising the importance of the independent nature of the ARC, with some labeling attempts to override it as ‘Trumpy’.

It is true. The academics who had their funding vetoed likely spent months on  their application, believing they were following a well established process, only to have their projects cut at the last minute for political reasons. With this process established, these projects should be honoured

Yet there is a problem with relying on this narrative. The narrative ignores the important relationship that academia does and should have with the general public, and in turn how academia is inherently linked with some form of political process. It assumes a process that exists solely within the lens of peer review, one which should involve no politics, nor any engagement from the public. For example, the ALP argued that through vetoing these projects the Coalition showed themselves to be nothing more than ‘knuckle-dragging philistines’. Labor’s Innovation Spokesperson Kim Carr argued:

“There is no case for this blatant political interference to appease the most reactionary elements of the Liberal and National party and the shock-jocks.”

I think this is very limited. The reality is that we cannot distance research funding from public debate, nor should we. Researchers who receive ARC grants get their funding from Government money, money that is gathered through taxation. The public therefore has a right to be engaged, a process which inherently involves politics.

This does not mean I think that a “national interest” measure, as Tehan is outlining is a good idea. But it’s not because thinking about research being within the “national interest” is inherently a terrible concept. Rather it’s because I think Tehan is likely to have a very narrow conception of what the national interest is, one which will result in the loss of funding of many important and valuable research projects.

In defending ourselves against these attacks, academics cannot shy away from engaging in public debates about the value of our work. Instead, we should be actively participating in these debates – emphasising the value that research and debate have in our society. We should be working to engage more closely with local communities in our research processes, developing research that is driven from the ground up and can actually benefit communities. We should be talking about how blue sky research can often lead to amazing discoveries, and how education should not always be instrumentally focused, and that education for education’s sake is vitally important to a healthy community. We should be talking about how the humanities plays a role in all of this. For example, as Jago Dodson said on Twitter:

“The greater national benefit is in supporting research of international significance and repute (sic).”

Just look at the case of the project Birmingham used to justify his veto — “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.” Instead of defending this project through the opaque process of the ARC, we could easily do so through discussing the value that arts — whether from Australia or Gibralter — within our society. We could discuss the international connections that such projects bring. We could engage with debates about the history of art and how this understanding this history helps shape our understanding of our currents.

Without doing this academia simply looks intellectuals sitting in ivory towers spending millions of dollars to talk to each other (and no one else) about interesting, but obscure, things. In fact in many cases this is the reality, with, for example, journal articles (the main output of a lot of research) frequently written in jargonistic language and then placed behind paywalls that cost an arm and a leg to access.

It is this feeling of academia being stuck in ivory towers — one that is often based in reality — that makes these sorts of political attacks so easy. It is why successive governments have been able to slash funding to Universities over the past decade with little political pushback. It is this perception — and this reality — that we need to be challenging.

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