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Realities of Research Funding, Academic Advancement & University PR Machines

Posted: Tue May 29, 2018 9:24 pm
by Leeuwenhoek2
Since the issue of who it taking funding from where and "alliances" comes up on a regular basis it makes sense to address how climate and related research gets funded. This article better explains some realities that I've touched on in other posts.

In academic science today obtaining research grants is a big deal especially as many universities move towards a policy of giving us an office and little more with the expectation that most everything else will be paid for by grants which we are responsible for obtaining. Academic advancement and status for university support is partly, and sometimes heavily, depends on how much grant money you bring in. Universities typically take 30% to 40% of all incoming grant funds for "overhead" so administrative deans and presidents really like grants.
Don Aitkin AO is a political scientist, writer, and administrator. Aitkins background includes:
  • Chairman of the Australian Research Council in 1988
  • Former Chairman of Australia’s National Capital Authority.
  • Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002
  • Vice-President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee in 1994 and 1995.
  • Played an influential role in the evolution of national policies for research and higher education from the mid-1980s, when he was the Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee, a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, and Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University.
In 1990 I gave an address in England, subsequently published in both the UK and Australia, deploring the extent to which research had become the be-all and end-all of appointment, promotion and honour in our universities. That trend has continued, despite the awards for good teaching, which did not exist when I gave that address.

The engine works this way. There is strong pressure on all academics to bring in research grant money for the department, the faculty and university. Those who do it well find their careers advancing quickly. To assist them there are media sections in universities whose job it is to frame the research work of academics in a way that will gain the attention of the media. Such media releases will come with as arresting a headline as the media section can devise. Buzzwords like ‘breakthrough’, ‘crucial’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘revolution’ will be used. If possible, the staff members will appear on television, with the accompaniment of familiar stock images of laboratories and machines. The staff members will also be aware (or made aware) of the opportunity they have to advance their careers and names through writing another version of their published journal article for The Conversation, a website in which academics can write in more accessible language for an inquiring lay readership. Free from the requirements of journal house-rules, the staff members will be able to lard up their findings, call for urgency in funding and, where that is apposite, demand political attention. The output of the engine is heightened recognition of the name of the university, the academics and their area, and of course the likely prospect of more research money. All those in the engine-room think that they are just doing their jobs. The engine did not exist thirty years ago.

None of this is much of a problem in the more recondite areas of academic research, string theory in physics, for example, or advanced econometrics in the social sciences. But it is a problem, and a rapidly growing one, in areas of research where what is actually the case is contested vigorously by others. An eye has to be kept on the source of the money going to higher education research, which in our country is overwhelmingly the Australian Government. In 2014, not quite four billion dollars was available within the higher education system for research, all of it from the Commonwealth. In addition universities made another billion or thereabouts from consultancy and research for other funders. ...

In the last forty years governments have become interested in universities’ finding academic support for what they are proposing or have in place. We are in an era of ‘policy-based evidence’. We are also in an era of a particular political correctness, where it is very difficult indeed to get funds for research if the purpose of the research seems antithetical to current government policy.
[Meaning the results of the research might challenge the wisdom of current government policy.]
‘Curiosity-directed research’ now comes with some serious barriers. Nowhere is this situation clearer than in the case of research on the Great Barrier Reef ... A bucket-load of money has been devoted to ‘the Reef’, and another half-billion was forecast in the recent Budget ... The Reef, as is frequently said, is an Australian ‘icon’. An icon is a religious object.

... [A shorter version of this essay was published in today’s The Australian, Wednesday 23rd May 2018]
Comment: Writing successful research grant proposals means being real careful about saying or even hinting that the research might end up challenging an orthodoxy or raise questions about existing programs or policies that would be inconvenient to the people with the money. Among other things science is a very human process with it's own set of "fires", "poisons" and "taints".

The article also discusses a law suite. With most of climate related lawsuits I tend to wait until there are some significant findings that come out of it. Before that time much talk about it feels too much like gossip and idle chatter to me. Especially, as in this case, when I know little about the situation beyond articles like this one. Patience and being able to hold things until their time is a virtue in both Buddhism and in western traditions of scientific/intellectual integrity.

In general it's my policy to dig into the source documents instead of only relying on media and blog reports, press releases etc. In situation such as this I want to read the original complains, motions and court rulings. I am grateful to live during the age of the internet where such documents are often made available online if one is willing to search around. The internet has also begun to revolutionize and usefully expand and speed up peer review.