Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Pouring their derision on anything we did… On @NickOsbaldiston and the public role of academics #auspol

English: Australian National University Colleg...
English: Australian National University College of Law, Canberra Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you haven’t read Dr Nick Osbaldiston’s blog post over at AusVotes2013, I recommend you do.  In his article, Dr Osbaldiston responds to a sporadic debate that we are having in Australia — the role of academics in public debates.

The University of Melbourne opened in 1853 amid a debate not entirely unlike the debate we are having today.  Where the broader public wanted a practical university to provide practical training in practical practices, an influential group of conservatives wanted the university to be a civilising force during rapid economic growth of Melbourne.  Thus, the inauguration of the classics department.

A similar debate occurred in the 1940s during the establishment of the Australian National University.  This time, it was the Australian Labor Party who was spearheading the institution, claiming that it had ‘not lost sight of the value of culture in the community‘.  The debate at the time was whether the funds going to establish the University was coming at the expense of other sectors.  A member of the Country Party, Winton Turnbull, had this to say about the establishment of a fund to protect the wool industry:

The honorable member for Darling (Mr. Clark) said that the expenditure of money from this fund would be of great benefit to the wool industry. Judging by the expression of the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction (Mr. Dedman), I think I am justified in believing that some of the money will be devoted to his pet project, the National University of Canberra, where, no doubt, research on wool will be conducted. I am in favour of the founding of a national university, but I do not think that the wool-grower’s should be called upon to finance it. [Source]

The early history of academia in Australia is a story of the elites pulling the population along, kicking and screaming.  More importantly, it’s not a history of integration.  Just as in other countries, there was limited diversity among academics in Australia — predominately urban, white, and from affluent backgrounds.  Unlike most other countries, however, there wasn’t a culture of patronage and universities relied heavily on taxpayers for support.  The result was an odd tension: academics weren’t contributing meaningfully to the day-to-day lives of ordinary Australians and yet expected those same Australians to cough up the cash to support them.

Every major reform over the past fifty years in the university sector has been driven by concerns about access to tertiary education, and not research.  Menzies took over the bulk of student funding from the States.  Whitlam funded free higher education… only for the Hawke Government to introduce HECS instead.  In the 1980s, there was Higher Education: a policy paper (commonly known as the ‘Dawkins Review’).

Where the ALP of the 1940s was committed to developing a university for cultural reasons, a brief line on page 65 of Dawkins’ paper showed a shift in thought:

The Government considers, however, that a greater proportion of such research should be in fields that have the potential to improve the nation’s competitive position.

Researchers in Australia therefore have two functions: to improve the economy through research, and to improve the economy through handing out degrees.

In May this year, Dr Alecia Simmonds wrote an article for Daily Life complaining that Australia was an intellectual gulag.  Her complaint was that academics aren’t involved to a greater extent in public debates.  In response to this position, I wondered whether we really should look to academia for public intellectuals.

Dr Osbaldiston took a different approach:

If there are many academics out there who deserve a voice in public debates, why are they not getting it? This is a difficult question to answer. Alecia comments that it’s due to a combination of a lack of ‘rewards’ and a timidity to enter the public fray fraught with bite sized criticisms that begin with ‘b***s***’ and end with a hashtag. I would agree with both of these sentiments but would add the following two.

[…] [W]riting opinion pieces, delivering articles for social media land and getting out into the public is just another thing to slot into an already very tight schedule.

[…] Journalists need good quality comments, quickly, decisively and at times, without much empirical or scientific backing. Unfortunately what this lends itself to isn’t a search through the expertise pages of the university website but a quick dial up of the ‘anytime/anyplace’ commentator. [Source]

The debate appears to be heading into a space where all academics are broadly clumped together into the same category.  As I’ve pointed out before, there are plenty of academics in the public debate.  The problem is that they’re not the academics that we want in the public debate.  It even goes beyond Dr Osbaldiston’s point of academics who speak outside their field of expertise, and goes to something more problematic: academic articles get published through a process of peer review, but academics who become social commentators aren’t similarly constrained and go rogue.  How frequently I see The Conversation used to further grudges; how frequently it’s used to give one side of an issue (the side which favours the author).  Do we really want more of this clownery in the public debate?

Where I think Dr Osbaldiston has a good point is with regard to facts.  In the Climate Change debate, we had a number of rogue academics informing the population at large about their fringe theories.  The usual blowhards, of course, gave these people the platform they needed to trash the debate.  If we had less focus on individual researchers in the debate and more focus on what information was being published in reputable journals, we would have had a better debate.

So, again, I don’t think the answer is for greater participation of academics in the public debate.  Think tanks are — in theory — supposed to be translating research into policy material for debate.  They are failing at that task.  And opinion writers are supposed to be taking the agreed facts and developing appropriate language for debate.  They are failing at that task.  We shouldn’t expect academics to plug the gap caused by the failures of others.


5 responses to “Pouring their derision on anything we did… On @NickOsbaldiston and the public role of academics #auspol”

  1. Absolutely, to think how much further we would be along with the resolving the climate problem without cranks like Flannery and Lewandowsky being given free scope on the usual places like the ABC to peddle their views…

  2. At the same time in the Climate debate, you arguably had Australia’s pre-eminent academic public intellectual, Ross Garnaut, leading the charge.

    I don’t understand how this fits in with the narrative that academics don’t get coverage (maybe bad academics don’t get coverage? Maybe some public policy issues aren’t conducive to ‘expert’ opinion/data?), but Garnaut set the terms of the debate (5% reduction by 2020) and established the need for an ETS as the best way forward to reduce emissions. Nearly everything in the debate about this in Australia stems from his report.

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