Australian Research Funding
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…