Australian Research Funding

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Aus­tralian read­ers may have seen the crit­i­cisms I made of the Aus­tralian Research Council’s (ARC’s) fund­ing process  in Eri­ca Cervini’s arti­cle “Show us the Mon­ey”, pub­lished in The Age and the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald in the last week. The basic propo­si­tion was that the sys­tem is like­ly to sup­port research in an exist­ing par­a­digm, and reject explo­ration of alter­na­tives to that par­a­digm:

If Albert Ein­stein had applied for an Aus­tralian research grant, he may nev­er have devel­oped his the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty. Those sup­port­ing the old style of physics would have stopped him obtain­ing fund­ing, says an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in eco­nom­ics and finance at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­ern Syd­ney, Steve Keen.

”If Ein­stein need­ed time or mon­ey to build his the­o­ry, he’d nev­er have got them under the Aus­tralian Research Coun­cil,” he says.

Keen uses the exam­ple to illus­trate how tough he says it is for peo­ple with unortho­dox views to win research grants from the coun­cil, the inde­pen­dent body respon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the nation­al com­pet­i­tive grants pro­gram, the pre-emi­nent Aus­tralian research awards.

The ARC is sup­posed to allo­cate the gov­ern­men­t’s mon­ey wise­ly to sup­port research by Aus­trali­a’s aca­d­e­mics, but because it uses a peer review approach to decide which pro­pos­als are worth fund­ing, it is inher­ent­ly biased against inno­v­a­tive research. If a new researcher in a field formed the opin­ion that a cur­rent­ly insol­u­ble prob­lem (say, the results of  “Black Body” radi­a­tion exper­i­ments) might just require a fun­da­men­tal shift in think­ing (such assum­ing that there was a fun­da­men­tal min­i­mum val­ue for ener­gy, rather than it being a con­tin­u­ous vari­able), it is high­ly unlike­ly that estab­lished researchers would think his idea wor­thy of fund­ing. Yet that idea might be right and the estab­lished way of think­ing wrong.

We’re rather lucky that Max Planck was­n’t rely­ing on the ARC for fund­ing, but instead got his sup­port from a com­mer­cial source (quot­ing Wikipedia, Planck “had been com­mis­sioned by elec­tric com­pa­nies to cre­ate max­i­mum light from light­bulbs with min­i­mum ener­gy”); so ulti­mate­ly the con­cept of quan­tum mechan­ics was born.

Per­ish the thought that the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment might waste its research funds on such sil­ly ideas! Instead there is an enor­mous bureacuracy–starting at the ARC itself, but more impor­tant­ly repli­cat­ed through­out Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties as they vie for research funding–devoted to apply­ing the peer review sys­tem to make sure that this gov­ern­ment mon­ey is wise­ly spent.

The irony is that this “be care­ful with our mon­ey” atti­tude ends up ensur­ing that the mon­ey will rarely if ever be used to achieve fun­da­men­tal progress. If they want ARC fund­ing, aca­d­e­mics have to spend lit­er­al­ly months each year draft­ing pro­pos­als which are then reviewed by oth­er aca­d­e­mics to decide which projects actu­al­ly get fund­ing. This is inher­ent­ly a way of ensur­ing that only ideas that are exten­sions of cur­rent­ly accept­ed thought will get fund­ed.

The fal­la­cy in this process is that it flies in the face of how sci­en­tif­ic progress occurs–the con­cept that there are “par­a­digms” in sci­ences, that progress involves both work with­in a par­a­digm that advances it (“nor­mal sci­ence”), and infre­quent “par­a­digm shifts” that con­sti­tute a sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion, have lit­er­al­ly become clich­es of mod­ern speech (they were first devel­oped by Thomas Kuhn, though the sci­en­tif­ic area itself has moved on some­what). Yet the ARC’s fund­ing meth­ods are emi­nent­ly suit­ed to nor­mal sci­ence, and biased against sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tions which are the events that real­ly advance human knowl­edge.

It would be bad enough if that was all that was wrong with the sys­tem, but in true Aus­tralian style, the pro­ce­dure adds an enor­mous and expen­sive bureau­crat­ic over­lay to a flawed method­ol­o­gy. There has been some progress in meth­ods since Geoff Davies’ excel­lent swipe at the sys­tem from two years ago in The Aus­tralian, but Geof­f’s crit­i­cisms are still large­ly valid:

ACROSS the nation, Aus­trali­a’s best and bright­est researchers, sup­port­ed by expen­sive teams of admin­is­tra­tors, have been devot­ing weeks of their time to such deep and eter­nal ques­tions as: Are all the pages cor­rect­ly num­bered, includ­ing the first page?…

We are encour­aged to join with over­seas col­lab­o­ra­tors. How­ev­er they must also sup­ply minu­ti­ae about them­selves and their insti­tu­tion, and be autho­rised at a high lev­el of their insti­tu­tion, even if they them­selves are the respon­si­ble author­i­ty for research expen­di­ture. These require­ments are pre­sump­tu­ous, and insult­ing to our dis­tin­guished over­seas col­leagues.

Uni­ver­si­ty author­i­ties live in fear that a phrase that could be read as dis­parag­ing to the ARC might slip through, and bring the wrath of the over­lords down upon them.

So tem­pers fray, admin­is­tra­tors hire extra help and are dri­ven to dis­trac­tion, researchers are kept from their research and mon­u­men­tal amounts of time and mon­ey are wast­ed.

Of course, it’s under­stand­able that the public–and their polit­i­cal representatives–want a mon­i­tor­ing process to improve the odds that funds for research are allo­cat­ed wise­ly. But as I argue above, the sys­tem we use actu­al­ly works against this, and for a sim­ple rea­son: real research involves the risk of blind alleys, yet the ARC’s mon­i­tor­ing process is designed to make it high­ly unlike­ly that any alter­na­tive alleys will be explored. Rather than risk one blind alley, the scheme sticks to the high­ways instead. It’s there­fore a means of mon­i­tor­ing the pub­lic’s research mon­ey that almost guar­an­tees that real research won’t be fund­ed.

Sim­i­lar points are made by Pro­fes­sor Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer and ARC Fed­er­a­tion Fel­low in the School of Physics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Syd­ney. Though he has done very well out of the ARC, he con­tends that the sys­tem rewards con­ven­tion­al thought rather than inno­va­tion:

The way sci­en­tif­ic research is fund­ed in Australia’s uni­ver­si­ties puts an exces­sive empha­sis on guar­an­teed results at the expense of adven­tur­ous ideas and major break­throughs…

It is often the inno­va­tor from a dif­fer­ent research field who ends up turn­ing the prob­lem com­plete­ly on its head, and it is some­times the obscure “blue sky” exper­i­ment that acts as the cat­a­lyst to cre­ate entire new indus­tries or solu­tions.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Australia’s poten­tial for dis­cov­ery and inno­va­tion is being held back by a sys­tem that encour­ages our sci­en­tists to play it safe, to fol­low tra­di­tion­al paths in their research and to steer clear of avant-garde exper­i­ments that might lead to spec­tac­u­lar break­throughs.

Aus­trali­a’s sys­tem does­n’t have to be this bad. Geoff Davies notes that the Cana­di­an sys­tem is far more effec­tive at fund­ing research while min­imis­ing the poten­tial for waste:

In Cana­da, you sub­mit a brief pro­pos­al sum­maris­ing your research accom­plish­ments for the past three years. All pro­pos­als are read ful­ly by the dis­ci­pline pan­el. If your work has been excel­lent, your fund­ing may be increased. If it has not been so good your fund­ing may be reduced, but won’t be instant­ly cut off. Once you are fund­ed you are free to fol­low wher­ev­er your dis­cov­er­ies take you, bear­ing in mind that you will be eval­u­at­ed again in three years.

This sys­tem is based on work actu­al­ly accom­plished, rather than half-baked claims of what may be accom­plished, it read­i­ly accom­mo­dates the serendip­i­ty of research, it is far more effi­cient, it is fair­er and the fund­ing out­comes are rel­a­tive­ly pre­dictable, so careers are not so capri­cious­ly dis­rupt­ed.

The ARC sys­tem is bur­dened with exces­sive detail and clum­sy pro­ce­dures, it is high­ly inef­fi­cient, offi­cious, patro­n­is­ing and capri­cious. It is not wor­thy of the high-qual­i­ty sci­ence com­mu­ni­ty it is sup­posed to serve.

These are gener­ic crit­i­cisms of a sys­tem that large­ly decides who is to get fund­ing by ask­ing already estab­lished researchers to decide whether their ideas deserve support–let aone the issue of the ide­o­log­i­cal wars that are rife in social sci­ences, and the par­tic­u­lar extreme of eco­nom­ics, where one par­a­digm (neo­clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics) dom­i­nates all oth­ers. There of course I have per­son­al expe­ri­ence.

I have put in about nine appli­ca­tions over the years–starting in 1997–to get the time I need­ed to devel­op my mod­els of debt defla­tion. Each appli­ca­tion has tak­en some­thing close to two months to devel­op, giv­en the time-con­sum­ing and capri­cious bureau­crat­ic over­load required by the scheme that Geoff Davies details so well–time that I could have spent doing the research, rather than apply­ing for fund­ing. Every last appli­ca­tion failed, includ­ing one where I was the top-ranked researcher at my uni­ver­si­ty out of the sev­en who made it to the final round–with an aver­age score from the four ref­er­ees of 88.75 (result­ing from 3 very high scores and one dis­mis­sive­ly low one of 75; I was lucky that year to get 3 non-neo­clas­si­cal ref­er­ees who under­stood my work).

The ARC’s over-rid­ing com­mit­tee revised my score–to 76. Though I topped UWS on the ref­er­ees’ scores, I was the only one of the sev­en UWS researchers not to get fund­ed. If there is any oth­er expla­na­tion for this apart from bias against non-ortho­dox eco­nom­ics (or an “Old Boys Club” that is the real out­come of the super­fi­cial­ly impar­tial eval­u­a­tion process), I’d like to hear it.

Much against my bet­ter judg­ment, I was pre­vailed upon to apply again this year–when the debt-defla­tion that I want­ed to research a decade before it began was already three years old. The fund­ing results for this scheme have just been announced, and sur­prise sur­prise, I did­n’t get fund­ing.

I won’t be wast­ing my time again. After all, there’s research to be done…

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About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.