The Conversation | 5 September 2013
By Rod Lamberts (ANU)
I doubt anyone truly believes governments are infinitely resourced. Even the most rabid, single-issue monomaniac can appreciate that to take public money from bucket X, it must come from bucket Y.
So it’s perfectly understandable the Coalition, like any party, must prioritise government spending of taxpayer money. The question is, how to prioritise.
What are the criteria for good spending versus bad spending? More specifically, what constitutes wasted spending?
When it comes to research funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) at least, it seems the Coalition has it all worked out.
In a Daily Telegraph exclusive this morning, it was reported that the Coalition has found all kinds of waste in ARC-funded research and that, under them, this will be reined in.
Not wanting to leave us guessing, some very specific examples of such wasted research spending were mentioned by the paper:
The Daily Telegraph can reveal that a list of the types of grants that would no longer be funded under new and more stringent guidelines for the ARC included an RMIT project on Spatial Dialogues: Public Art and Climate Change which sought to explore how people could adapt to climate change through public art.
As the Coalition’s concern is about wasted spending, I naturally assumed their criticisms of such research would be based on inefficiencies in the project’s budget.
I also assumed the declaring of this project as wasteful was based on a rigorous, expert evaluation of the success of such programs, and a comparison of their worth with alternative approaches.
After all, who would make such important assertions about how to spend the A$900 million ARC budget without solid evidence?
So, how is this waste really measured? Apparently, waste equals spending on research that doesn’t meet the Coalition’s funding priorities.
Not national funding priorities: the Coalition’s funding priorities. These are not always synonymous.
If you disagree, you hate sick people
Today’s Telegraph’s “exclusive” is interestingly crafted. We are told that important research dollars won’t be cut from the ARC total budget, but redirected to finding cures for diseases.
Two things here. One is jurisdictional – government medical and health research funding is the remit of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), not the ARC.
The seriously sneaky technique, though, is setting up all who argue against this to automatically be bad guys.
The biggest surprise is the Coalition uses dementia and not sick children as an example of where the “wasted” money will be redirected.
What’s research for?
While it has become almost trite for those in my profession to say this, not all pursuits can have their worthiness scores calculated in dollars and cents. We do research because we don’t know things.
Sometimes that research goes nowhere, sometimes it takes us further than we would have first imagined. The biographies of successful researchers and entrepreneurs alike are littered with tales of that critical failure that lead them to greatness.
Yes, sometimes research boosts the economy and sometimes it cures disease. Sometimes it also helps us understand what it is to be human just a little better, or simply makes us go “ooh!”.
All of these outcomes have their place in a democratic, dynamic, sophisticated society such as ours. It means we necessarily support enormous diversity in our national research endeavours.
So governments decide what good research is
This situation reported this morning – if we are to believe it – has discomforting similarities to one in the US earlier this year.
Under the auspices of the Coburn Amendment, US Republicans voted to ban the use of National Science Foundation funds for political science research unless the director of the National Science Foundation certifies the research as:
promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.
In essence, supporters of the amendment were miffed because they felt that political science research often made Republicans and conservatives look bad.
But even if that’s true, it is absolutely appropriate in a democratic and enlightened society that any rigorous, peer-reviewed research that has been approved by the pertinent ethics committees be eligible to compete equally for taxpayer funding. Not just research that aligns with the views of a single political party or position.
If we really are about to witness an exercise in weeding out wasted spending and futile research, I await eagerly to see how this will assessed.
Naturally the focus will be on financial responsibility and rigorous budgets. But on the off-chance this isn’t just about efficient spending and they’re looking beyond people with book-keeping credentials, I officially volunteer to be on the soon-to-be-convened ARC Committee to Weed Out Wasted Spending and Futile Research.
Rod Lamberts has previously received funding from the ARC.