Perhaps the strange ones in the dome can lend us a book we can read up alone… Funding experts

It would be a far better media landscape if we were to judge commentators by the quality of the people with whom they disagree.  This might be self-serving because I try, where possible, to engage with the best ideas that are contradictory to my own.

By far one of the best writers with whom I disagree is Sarah Burnside.  Fortunately, she’s written about a topic where, I hope, I can disagree intelligently and productively: research policy.

On Overland, Sarah pulls on a few arguments about how we fund research and sees where they lead.  The result is a very intelligent exploration of a few key ideas from the perspective of a person who is interested in social goods.  The first idea explored is the very common talking point that Conservatives are hostile to science: ‘The casual observer could be excused for concluding that the Coalition harboured some deep-seated grudge against the sciences, as though somehow, at a formative age, someone in a lab coat wielding a Bunsen burner had hurt the government’s collective feelings and it had never truly recovered.’  The next idea is that science is suffering due to budget cuts.  And, finally, that the narrative about the Right being hostile to science and the cuts to research institutions is part of a disquieting broader public intuition about the nature of expertise: ‘What is so disquieting about these arguments is not only the lack of trust in one’s fellow human beings, but also the seeming assumption that a decision made by experts will undoubtedly be beneficial.’

But we could take a slightly different approach: that the problem isn’t that this dollar is cut or that dollar is allocated, but instead that the research sector is failing systemically due to the very strange way(s) in which it is funded.

Let’s start with the nature of expertise.  Neither end of the political spectrum covers themselves in glory in their admiration for expertise.  Experts about nuclear energy aren’t really experts when they advocate for nuclear power stations.  Experts about agricultural science aren’t really experts when they advocate for GM crops (and might even find their CSIRO crops being destroyed by activists). Experts about asylum seeker policy aren’t experts when they support offshore detention centres.  Experts about national security aren’t experts when they claim terrorism is real.  And so on and so forth.

This has long given rise to difficult questions, from the vague and eye-watering ‘What is expertise?’ through to the pragmatic, bean-counting ‘How do we fund expertise?’

Nobody wants to grapple with those questions lest they hear unpleasant answers.  On the second question, researchers – like artists – are fundamentally conservative when it comes to how they’re funded.  They want the old system but with more money flowing through it.  For what it’s worth, Burnside challenges this idea: the ‘goal is surely not to preserve the science and technology sectors as a cordoned-off, well-funded island while other areas of civil society wither’.  But we need to set up more of the pieces of the argument to get to what this might mean.

Let’s start with the privatisation of research outputs.  Dr Watson has a position at a university with very low teaching obligations, a fairly well resourced laboratory, and all of the overheads taken care of by the taxpayer.  She has produced a material that might plausibly, with some extra research, result in a commercially valuable product.  There is an incentive for Dr Watson to make quite a lot of her research available through Open Access publishing, then set up a company to use that research to produce a commercially valuable product.  Her laboratory partner, Dr Holmes, has been using the same laboratory but hasn’t produced research with a commercially valuable product.  He continues on in his salaried job.

This happened with such regularity that universities themselves have got in on the action, establishing companies to bring research outputs to market.  At least, we might think, the profits are coming back into the university sector rather than to individual researchers, but we might wonder about the ethics of it.  Taxpayers take the hit for unprofitable research, while the profitable material is privatised regardless of its impact on society.  A medical breakthrough at a university!  Should it be made freely (or cheaply) available to the taxpayers who funded its discovery, or should we let universities act like profiteers in the marketplace?

So what do we want?  Do we want a publicly-funded research sector that’s geared towards producing new medicines, widgets, and gizmos?  Or do we want to a publicly-funded research sector that’s full of people who engage with society and act as leaders?  Both?  Neither?  Which vision is the one that best supports the development of ‘expertise’?

Outside of a very, very small circle, there isn’t a lot of serious discussion about why universities exist at all.  Universities exist because we’re a civilised country and we have to have universities.  But we have 43 of them.  We also have a few dozen taxpayer-funded research organisations.  Do we need 43 Vice-Chancellors?  43 Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Research)?  43 Deputy Vice-Chancellors (Academic)?  Is this what efficient, effective research funding looks like?

And the big policy question is still CSIRO: should it exist at all?  The only response I’ve received to this question is ‘Don’t be stupid; every advanced economy has a government research institution!’  But it’s not a great argument.  It also doesn’t answer what research the CSIRO should undertake.  What sort of expertise should it fund, if any?

When the CSIRO decided to drop its climate scientists, the outrage from the Left was overwhelming.  Who else could do the amazing, world leading climate research?  With 43 universities in Australia, you’d imagine that at least one of them could do it.  Indeed, one would think that a university would be a better place for that kind of research instead of an industrial research organisation.  But we were more interested in the ‘Coalition is hostile to science’ narrative than the ‘CSIRO exists to do industrial research’ policy.

And then you have the usual special pleading ‘studies’ that ‘prove’ every dollar spent in a university results in a dollar something being returned to the economy, and every undergraduate degree lifts the wage of a worker without a degree by an umpteenth of a dollar.  These arguments always leave universities open to attack: should they be doing work that doesn’t have an economic benefit?  Let us imagine that the net benefit of not teaching, say, astrophysics resulted in an extra half cent to the economy per dollar spent on higher education, should we stop teaching it?  What if resulted in an extra 20 cents?

Burnside’s argument tries to move us away from this sort of economic rationalism, but it’s phrases like ‘Opposition to the government’s cuts must be full-throated’ that make me wonder if we’re still stuck inside that framework.  Why do we spend so much on the research sector?  Why can’t we spend less?  Why can’t we spend better?

Take the example of Future Fellowships given in the article.  Future Fellowships have been a total disaster: the policy purpose of the scheme (to reverse ‘brain drain’) has resulted in a very expensive cost-shifting exercise from universities’ recurrent budgets to short term government grants.  They were supposed to last only five years, but they’ve been extended indefinitely (in both senses of that word) resulting in chaotic and haphazard tweaking of rules and regulations.  But, worst of all, they externalise the strategic recruitment decision making of our research sector to a whimsical government game.  If the Marktopian University wants to hire to the world’s best Fletcherologist, the government wants the Marktopian University to submit an application to the Australian Research Council where the application will be read by a ‘College of Experts’, then assessed by anonymous ‘peers’ then returned to the University for comment on the assessment by the peers, then returned to the College of Experts for them to reread the application, the assessments, and the University’s response and decide whether or not they will recommend to the Minister that the Marktopian University should hire the world’s best Fletcherologist.  It is bizarre and it is a waste of money.

The ARC also has a borked scheme called the ‘Discovery Early Career Researcher Award’.  It was created when it was discovered that the success rate of Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship awards was in the toilet… but ended up with even worse success rates.

And instead of hiring more researchers, the ARC system is so incomprehensibly complex that universities have to hire an ever growing army of administrators to navigate the system.  It’s to the extent that the ARC does a better job of keeping administrators employed than academics: a statutory body full of public servants to give the money and a city’s worth of administrators to receive the money.

Why do we do it?  Why do we do any of it?  We’ve created a class of people who live relatively comfortable lifestyles at the expense of the taxpayer, but who then criticise said taxpayers when they have the temerity to question whether they’re worth it.  I’ve argued before that a concept of ‘academic freedom’ should replace ‘freedom of the press’ but soon ate my words when the ‘academic freedom’ banner was waived in defence of a man who made thinly veiled threats towards students online and another who conducted experiments on people without ethics clearance.  ‘Academic freedom’, it seemed, meant funding their lifestyles and then shutting up when they engaged in antisocial vandalism of the public space.

And then we could have the discussion about ‘celebrity professors’…

This is all before we get to the difficulty with the language of ‘cuts’.  Year on year, the funding made available to the ARC, the CSIRO, &c., &c., has increased.  The ‘cuts’ have always been from future increases.  So when the Liberal Party ‘cut’ funding to the ARC, it meant that it was going to increase funding by, say, six dollars instead of by ten.

Talk to any other sector of society and they would kill for that kind of cut.  There are sectors where a cut means that they shut up shop.  There are sectors where a cut means people lose their jobs.  This is a sector where a cut means that you don’t hire as many new people next year as you did this year.

The Government’s research policy is a chaotic mess of incentives.  Until the Watt Review, universities were rewarded for having as many PhD students as they could fit and for publishing as many articles as they could write.  The result was a sea of PhD graduates with no real prospect of getting a job in academia or anywhere else (especially in STEM), and a flood of journal articles that stood a real chance of never being read after twelve months.

Having cast quite a broad net across a range of topics — that the Left hates experts as much as the Right, that the funding system is a mess and should be cut, and that ‘cuts’ in the sectors are of an entirely different kind to the sort experienced by other sectors — what is my alternative position to Burnside’s?

I think that our university sector is bloated and wasteful, but it is bloated and wasteful out of necessity because of all the quirky and odd government interventions into the sector.  We could probably do more in the research sector with less money.  For a start, if you axed the ARC, universities could sack most of their administrators.  The biggest joke of the research sector is that the government gives funding to universities in order to administer the funding it gives it to do research (‘Research Block Grants’).  If universities were leaner, they could get rid of most of their acronym’d senior staff, and if they were merged into larger organisations, they would be able to do away with at least a third of their Vice Chancellors.  The ACT has at least five university campuses.  Five.  In what possible universe is that an efficient, effective use of the tertiary education sector budget?

Finally, I would make State governments responsible for funding their own universities, redirecting Commonwealth funding to national priority institutions.

Universities are currently missing in action when it comes to providing community leadership.  Taxpayers are funding them to be custodians of culture, and are getting very little in return.  Part of the problem is that the audience really doesn’t exist beyond the walls of academia: the Anglosphere has become openly hostile towards elites.  But that is all the more reason for universities to become platforms with which the broader community — not just students and academics — can engage with each other and the best ideas of the day.

As university funding is almost entirely built around ‘incentives’ and as there is no way to incentivise them to fulfill this moral obligation, it goes unfulfilled.  If you cut the strings to their funding and made Vice Chancellors responsible for defending the existence of universities to the broader community, you would get better universities.

But the status quo is more than simply broken.  All of the structures which encourage us to protect the status quo are intellectually bankrupt.  Even our rhetoric about universities is bad.  And commentary all too frequently comes from academics who don’t actually know what they’re talking about.  There is a world of difference between academic opinion and the mere opinions of an academic, and nowhere is this more true than when having discussions about how we should reform the university sector.

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