Public interest research is what people won’t pay you for, everything else is advertising.

I’m thrilled to have had Sarah Ison cover how the proposed changes to UWA’s Social Science program are going to impact my public interest research. However, the article also over-represented some blatant mis-direction from a ‘UWA spokeswoman’ that I had rebutted with Sarah.

I suspect that West Australian editors have decided to protect the interests of UWA (a major advertiser in that paper) and cut much of the story. So, I’m taking to the interwebs, where people can – at least for the moment – speak freely, to rebut the empty claim that research in areas such as ‘health, social care, the environment and media and communications – would “continue to be developed and supported through nationally competitive resaerch grants and industry funding”‘.

That statement is misguided and specious. The proposal suggests that our research and teaching contracts will be replaced with teaching focus. There is no actual statement in the proposal about supporting existing or future research projects for teaching focused academics; even in the event of successfully gaining nationally competitive research grants and industry funding. So what they are saying here isn’t even clearly ‘true’ or part of the proposed change. The only statement in the proposal is that we ‘will continue to have access to research time in line with workload allocation for activities, including, where relevant, for the supervision of HDR students’. That is an incredibly vague statement that does not even match what they have said above. It means I ‘might’ be given 5 hours a week to supervise the research of my 6 PhD students, it certainly does not spell out that if I won a grant I’d be able to buy out of teaching.  If that were the case, they might have mentioned it in the proposal (they didn’t).

But even beyond that, what they are doing is making grant success impossible for teaching ‘focused’ academics, particularly in Media and Communications which, along with Asian Studies are the ONLY disciplines to lose all research positions. I’ll explain why:

Gaining nationally competitive research grants and industry funding depends heavily on a criteria called ‘research environment’ – meaning ‘is your research taking place in an environment that actively supports and adds value to your research’. If the university does not foster research in our area we will forever be structurally disadvantaged in that category and unlikely to succeed in those grants.

Also note that when writing these grants, budgeting for teaching relief is shunned and requires ‘significant justification’ (see – precisely because the review panel don’t expect teaching focused academics to be in a strong enough research environment to get these grants. Being ‘teaching focused’ is a red flag that you are not in a strong research environment.

Simply writing up a nationally competitive research grant generally takes more than 100 hours of work just to do the writing (recommended time: at least 6 weeks) – and then only around 15-20% of grants are ever successful. Grant success is a product of time investment in the writing plus a wealth of work on previously published research to prove your research strength (which is most commonly understood in the form of ‘previous grant success’). I will need to spend my entire annual leave writing an application that is almost bound to fail because of the impoverished research environment the university is creating for us as a ‘teaching focused discipline’.

So they are saying ‘here, sign a contract that states you will no longer research, and will be given a massive teaching load that literally takes up every hour of your working week but trust us that if you manage to somehow do the impossible and find the time to write a grant, and then despite the structural disadvantage of your research environment  you make it through to the 15% of successful grants and actually secure grant funding we MIGHT let you buy out of some of your teaching duties’. (but of course we would discourage you from asking for teaching relief in your grant if you want it to be successful).

I am actually on more than $400,000 of grants for the Coronavax projects at the moment – but none of that budget is allocated to buy me out of teaching. The money goes to software, administrative support, advertising and simply to ‘the university’. When we last requested that the next grant buy me out of some of my teaching for next semester the Head of School responded that the School couldn’t afford to lose my teaching duties (as it is important for student experience). So how they expect us to ‘trust them’ that in the future it will somehow be different (after I’ve signed a contract that commits me to just be a teacher) is again, a leap of faith that I would have to be stupid to make. This statement elicited here in this story is the most concrete suggestion I’ve seen that there might be some way to protect my research time but even then, they are attempting a whitewash to suggest what they are proposing is plausible or a ‘solution’.

Finally, there is also the argument that grant research IS NOT the only form of valuable research and not the only research that ought to take place at a publicly funded univerity. The process of deciding what research gets grants is really problematic and presents huge barriers to first time applicants, or people with novel or challenging research projects. It has also been highly politicised – with Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan interfering with the process by blocking successful humanities grants they didn’t like. While it might seem fair to block research funding for ‘mens fashion in the 19th Century’, consider that this is just the interference the government is happy to brag about because doing so wins them votes. If they are happy to brag about this interference, they are also clearly willing to interfere on more sensitive research topics.

So NO, I don’t think the Morisson government will support grants into issues such as violent misogyny, political corruption or the bungled vaccine role out (all projects I’m currently working on). While Industry partnerships can be promising, these are not a case of ‘public interest research’ but rather university subsidising research industry would or should otherwise pay for. Industry partnerships can produce really efficient and important research. HOWEVER, it should not be the case that research in a G08 university should only happen in areas that ‘industry’ wants it too. Research into the huge problems our society faces will simpy never take place under that model and the question is, if it doesn’t take place in a privileged and advantaged university such as UWA – where will it take place?

There is an old saying about journalism ‘news is what someone doesn’t want you to print, everything else is advertising’. The same can be said for research. While industry and government can (and should) fund much worthy and critical research, there is by definition a critical deficit in such research. Quite frankly, they don’t fund research that might make them look bad, they fund research that bolsters their own positions and moves them toward their own goals. (See for instance, this announcement about $1.3M being awarded to UWA for defense industry research).

What is missing in this model is research that specifically helps the the disadvantaged and the marginalised, that protects the interests of the broad public that shares the experience of being led to a bleak future by an political elite in the pocket of big business. Research that criticises mistakes made by government and industry and points us to a better world for everybody. Research that encourages critical and challenging thinking as a worthy end in and of itself. It is gone under this model of the university.

Public value research is what industry and government doesn’t want to fund, everything else is advertising.

One Reply to “Public interest research is what people won’t pay you for, everything else is advertising.”

  1. This is horrendous. I realised over a decade ago that academia in Australia had gone in a direction that mortified me. This article reinforces that sense of foreboding. I can only say how amazed I am that scholars such as yourself still fight on.

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