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Masterly inactivity or ‘unmasterly activity’ on academic freedom?

Posted 19 September 2013 by Michael Evans (edXpress)

The NTEU has condemned Tony Abbott’s proposed Commission of Audit which will “re-prioritise” about $900 million in annual Australian Research Council (ARC) grants and not ‘waste’ it on research projects such as “The God of Post-Kantian Idealism”. Paul Kniest, NTEU Policy and Research Coordinator, reports.

The pronouncement, made two days before the federal election, flies in the face of Abbott’s reassurance to the Universities Australia Conference in February this year that “higher education is one area where government’s role is more to be a respectful listener than a hands-on manager” and that he would adopt an approach of “masterly inactivity”.

The Australian higher education and research sectors must now hold Prime Minister Tony Abbott to his word.

In the last days of the federal election campaign, Jamie Brigg, the chairman of the Liberal- National Party scrutiny of government waste committee, must have been channelling former Coalition Education Minister Brendan Nelson, when he promised an audit of "increasingly ridiculous research grants" awarded by the ARC. The Coalition’s official costings show that it intends cutting $103m from the ARC and "reprioritising" it to new spending on selected areas of medical research.

As High Wired in The Australian observed last week, clearly Mr Briggs is of the view that unless your research cures cancer, it is a waste of time, effort and public funding.

Mr Briggs’ statements have been widely condemned by many peak bodies in the sector beside the NTEU, including Science and Technology Australia (STA), the Council for Humanities Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS), the Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and Universities Australia.

Professor Margaret Sheil, Provost of Melbourne University and former CEO of the ARC, also warned against the politicisation of research funding. However, Mr Briggs went beyond questioning the integrity of the highly rigorous assessment processes undertaken by bodies such as the ARC and NHMRC, when he directly attacked the work of the four individual researchers whose projects he identified by name as being “ridiculous”.

All four projects he cited as wasteful were from the humanities, two from philosophy.

In order to gain the respect and confidence of the Australia’s internationally renowned higher education and research communities, the first thing Mr Abbott’s newly appointed Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, must do is to rule out the possibility of direct interference in assessment and allocation of Australia’s competitive research grants.

He must apply Mr Abbott’s principle of “masterly inactivity” and allow international experts to determine which one out of every five research grants will be funded. Not to do so would mean that he is prepared to allow for direct political or personal interference in the allocation of Australia’s scarce competitive research resources or what might be called ‘unmasterly activity’.

Info: Paul Kniest, NTEU Policy and Research Coordinator: 0418 170 622; pkniest@nteu.org.au

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