28 April 2023

A million bucks for 'Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity'? Damn right some ARC grants should have been vetoed

| David Murtagh
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Josh Frydenberg and Stuart Robert

Josh Frydenberg and Stuart Robert in May 2021 looking for more totally relevant and essential research projects they can kill. Probably. Photo: Stuart Robert.

You probably heard last week that the Philistines in the past few Federal Liberal Governments – including the Morrison Government, and we know that he wrecked everything and his government was the worst – took an axe to academic freedom and wantonly slashed essential Australian Research Council programs.

Worse, they were approved programs. Approved! By experts. And then, at the last minute, out of nowhere, came academic-hating zealots like Stuart Robert (worst of the worst, right?) and they killed knowledge as it slept.

Fear struck academia. It. Was. Chilling.

We know this as a month after Robert’s heinous act, in January 2022, around 1500 academics signed an open letter (and you can’t get more serious than that), criticising the federal government for being “political and shortsighted” – and you know how academics hate to criticise a government for being political (which academics never are).

Two months later, it got worse: Australia risked becoming a pariah nation.

Tweet from Brian Schmidt

Professor Brian Schmidt responded moments after the decision by Stuart Robert in 2021. Image: Twitter.

Nobel laureate and ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt told a Senate inquiry that humanities and social science research helped “build cultural awareness and an understanding of our society, which is clearly in the national interest”.

“Cultural awareness and an understanding of our society”. Hold that thought …

Schmidt also said the ministerial veto powers had become a problem for recruiting talented international researchers, with some having “expressed their concerns to the point of saying: ‘I am not going to come to Australia until you sort this out.’”

And hold that one, too.

So sickening was this attack that the new Labor Government established a committee to look into ARC grants and make recommendations to save universities, and if there’s anything we know about government reports for a new minister, the result is definitely not a lay down misère.

And sure enough, when the report was released last week, it said, well, it said exactly what was expected.

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No way ministers should be able to veto a project, the committee of Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil, La Trobe University senior deputy vice-chancellor Susan Dodds, and University of Adelaide professor of biomedicine Mark Hutchinson said.

Why shouldn’t ministers veto projects? Well, too much was at stake.

As Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said, a strong, independent ARC was central to having a world-leading research system.

“Past interventions have eroded confidence in our research program and our reputation for research excellence. We have an opportunity now to right those wrongs,” she said.

Peak representative body Science & Technology Australia commended the review panel on its legislative and regulatory recommendations.

“The ARC plays a crucial role in supporting Australia’s economy-boosting research sector. We’re delighted to see the expert panel have listened to the challenges faced by the sector and responded thoughtfully and cleverly,” CEO Misha Schubert said.

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So you might be wondering, what projects that played a crucial role “in supporting Australia’s economy-boosting research sector” were axed? What great scientific advances were destroyed? Perpetual motion? A cure for baldness? A never-ending packet of Tim Tams?

Well, none actually. Not that you’d know that if you read the breathless reports last week about how academic freedom had been saved.

Because if you read The Australian, if you read The Guardian and even if you read The Riotact, you’d notice something odd – not one of the research grants approved by the ARC and then axed by evil ministers was named.


The same goes for the report itself. Don’t you want to know what projects were axed? Wouldn’t that be relevant?

If you read a police report, wouldn’t you expect to be told what crime was allegedly committed?

Maybe this is why they didn’t mention the grants. This is the full list of grants rejected by Senator Birmingham in October 2018 – and the amounts they were awarded:

  • Price, Medals and Materials in the Global Exchange – $391,574 (ANU)
  • Legal Secularism in Australia – $330,466 (University of Melbourne)
  • Soviet Cinema in Hollywood Before the Blacklist 1917-1950 – $335,788 (UNSW)
  • The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music – $764,744 (Macquarie)
  • Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity – $926,372 (Latrobe)
  • Rioting and the Literary Archive – $228,155 (UNSW)
  • A History of Australian Men’s Dress 1870-1970 – $325,592 (ACU)
  • Beauty and Ugliness as Persuasive Tools in Changing China’s Gender Norms – $161,774 (UNSW)
  • Post-Orientalist Arts of the Strait of Gibraltar – $222,936 (University of Sydney)
  • Music Heritage and Cultural Justice in the Post-Industrial Legacy City – $226,811 (Griffith)
  • Greening Media Sport – $259,720 (Monash).

And fresh from playing Dobby in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, these were the ARC grants knocked on the head by Stuart Robert in December 2021:

  • Playing Conditions: How Climate Shaped the Elizabethan Theatre
  • National Forgetting and Local Remembering: Memory Politics in Modern China
  • China Stories under Xi Jinping: Popular Narratives
  • Finding Friendship in Early English Literature
  • Cultural Production of Religion by Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels
  • New Possibilities: Student Climate Action and Democratic Renewal.

Maybe you can see why they didn’t put these projects in lights.

Perhaps Professor Schmidt could explain how Playing Conditions: How Climate Shaped the Elizabethan Theatre “build[s] cultural awareness and an understanding of our society, which is clearly in the national interest”.

When Bell Shakespeare comes to the capital, they turn on the air con at Canberra Theatre. Climate solved! Elizabethan theatre lives!

The report authors noted: “At face value, the rationale of these [ministerial] interventions amounts to a lack of trust in the peer review process on the part of the minister of the day,” creating “a spiral that reflects on trust in the ARC itself by other stakeholders.”

No. The spiral of distrust in the ARC process can be found in a million-dollar grant about Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity.

The Astronomical Society of Australia noted that “research funding decisions are out-sourced to the ARC and no individual can possibly be sufficiently knowledgeable to overrule that process”.

Really? Is that your final bid? That “no individual can possibly be sufficiently knowledgeable to overrule that process” that involves $222,936 of our tax dollars to investigate Post-Orientalist Arts of the Strait of Gibraltar?

Here’s the thing, if these grants had gone through, under our parliamentary system, Birmingham and Robert would have been the ministers responsible for defending these grants. That’s impossible. They are indefensible.

Of all the Morrison Government’s sins, maybe they believed in the last remnants of ministerial responsibility after all.

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The two China research projects may have provided some useful insights for our dealings with China now and into the future.

If you think the value of a research project can be determined by a title, then you are proving why ministers, who barely have the comprehension skills to handle one-page briefings (and yes, many public servants know the some ministers refuse to read anything over a page) should have veto powers after a proposal has been scrutinised by experienced academics.

The last government was woeful, but the author is so left wing, Marx would be blushing if he were still alive

Life in a bubble. These academics should be ashamed of themselves. Wasted taxpayers $ seems to be a business in academia.

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