Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Who should do curiosity-driven research? Two debates, 20 years apart.

At the moment a press-release scuffle is going on, between the different types of Australian universities. See http://delicious.com/hannahforsyth/research

The Group (sometimes called Gang) of Eight elite institutions argues that their tradition of research means research funds should be intensified in their institutions. The rest, understandably, think this is pretty self-interested behaviour. But it is very difficult to fully fund research, because there is no end to what is not known. Specific research projects, awarded competitively on the basis of set criteria are not so difficult, but this has very serious implications for academic freedom and the integrity of knowledge.

A colleague once told me of a private institute in another country where scientists are brought in to focus entirely on the research they wish. They have the equipment and assistance they need and may take PhD students, fully funded. They are not allowed to apply for grants, unless they are an early career researcher. If one of these does apply for a grant, they must refuse it (so it can go on their CV, but the money does not corrupt the system). This philanthropic and utopian approach that is dedicated to academic freedom is necessarily elite, in the current environment. But imagining any country funding this in every institution??? This is sort-of what the Go8 is proposing for itself.

This exact same debate happened 20 years ago, interestingly. I just wrote about it yesterday, so I'll paste it below. Sorry it makes for a very long post.

A small part of my first draft: please be forgiving. These events are in 1989:

The scuffle over research was actually about funding, of course, and in the process Penington had criticised the capabilities of the head of the Australian Research Council, Don Aitkin, suggesting “government should find a new role for Professor Aitkin, more appropriate to his abilities”. It was in fact this issue – the transfer of recurrent funds from university to the Australian Research Council for competitive reallocation – that caused Penington to rebel outright. Aitkin’s brief to mould Australian research to a “national needs” was described by Penington as like Greek legend Procrustes “who trimmed or stretched his guests to fit his bed”. On 25th July 1989, he, along with some other vice-chancellors, formed a rebel splinter group from the Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee, known as the “Tuesday Group” – a group that Bob Bessant hoped would evolve into a lobby group independent of the Vice-chancellors and the salary-focused union. Openly described as a piece of Melodrama by Canberra, Penington assumed a heroic stance, saying that:

Some of my vice-chancellor colleagues feel it is dangerous to be critical of the Government.

But Penington’s focus was on the quality of knowledge produced for the benefit of the community:

Research policies controlled from Canberra, he says, run the risk of being short-term and politically motivated. Had the Dawkins policies been in place during the polio epidemics, research funds would have gone into creating better iron lungs. The discovery of the Salk and Sabine vaccines which eradicated polio were the result of simple curiosity. It is impossible, he says, to dictate creativity.

Academics at ex-colleges (especially) denounced Penington and the Tuesday group as “elitist”, seeking a return to the “dark ages” – a past (probably not in the dark ages) where “universities were the preserve of the elite”.

This was a problem the Australian Research Council had sought to address in the first place: research funds spread too far and too thinly. But now, because of Dawkins’ other reforms – the end of the binary system – the Council was seen to be exacerbating the problem. Curiosity-driven research is very expensive to fund universally in a very large higher education sector, leading to the suggestion that some curiosity-driven research should be funded in specific and admittedly elite corners of the sector. Penington was not alone in claiming that free inquiry and curiosity-driven research is important to civil society and also leads to important applied discoveries – like the polio vaccines – that but for serendipity, would not have been found. But, this tradition, as observed by Eric Ashby, also shows that this type of research requires leisure – meaning the staff assigned to do it need to be trusted enough to be granted sufficient research time for serendipitous discovery to be possible. This is obviously more expensive than targeted research projects. As Dawkins sought to equalise the sector, making universities out of colleges through amalgamation or by changing their status, the officially classified “university” sector increased, as did the pool of potential researchers. The most obviously efficient and fair way, from Dawkins’ perspective, to fund these was to ask all institutions to compete for funding, with selection based on alignment to the actual needs of the nation.

From Penington’s perspective this had severe problems. Firstly, “national needs” were understood economically, not in terms of contribution to civil society, meaning the outcomes of research were more narrowly understood. Systematically rewarding short-term outcomes would, Penington argued, fundamentally and potentially irrevocably shift the character of university-based knowledge. Even if academics did not apparently deserve the privileges attached to curiosity-driven research, such research is necessary to the community. But privilege is not the point. Accepting that the Commonwealth and State governments could not be expected to fully fund curiosity-driven research by every academic in the (now) massive sector, Penington argued that those universities who had a substantial tradition of academic curiosity and free inquiry would be best positioned to be granted the special task of continuing to do so. Elite, yes – but certainly safer than shifting the character of knowledge. No wonder he felt heroic. But opposition was not only from Canberra. Having finally gained university status, ex-colleges were hardly likely to look warmly on the proposition that a new layer be created on what was almost certainly “above” them. Penington saw this as Dawkins’ “Henry VIII” type plan to conquer the system while it squabbles amongst itself, scrambling for scraps.

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