Skip to comments.Paid to be pointless - Andrew Bolt
Posted on 11/25/2004 6:59:54 PM PST by naturalman1975
I AM trying to think of a worse way to hand nearly $500 million a year in grants to academics, but it's hard to beat the Australian Research Council.
Just look at the $381 million the ARC splashed out just this month -- and how.
Have you seen any grants-granting that's so wasteful or so open to mates-rates back-scratching?
Have you seen a process less likely to truly consider our national interest, or more likely to have us spend, for instance, all of $710,000 on a study of "attitudes towards sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman Era"?
How will taxpayers be better for spending $255,000 on a research project called "Feminist theory meets indigenous art", or $118,000 on a film expert's musings on "The Misfits and the iconography of post-war American acting"?
And while a "new social and economic history of the Classical Greek drama" may sound interesting, is there much left to say on the subject that's truly worth the $458,000 this will cost?
Spare us. The ARC is one reason so many academics have had so little incentive to get involved in the pressing debates of our time -- and have often had too little of worth to say when they do.
Which grant-fed academic historian, for instance, has written a book recently as readable, insightful and influential -- with 180,000 sales so far -- as journalist Les Carlyon's prize-winning Gallipoli, written without a cent of your taxes?
But before I go into one of its most astonishing failings -- how academics on the ARC's panels of experts could again give big grants to each other -- let me give credit where it's due.
First, we now have a Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, who seems to share my alarm, if not quite my sense of urgency.
This year, for the first time, he knocked back several of the sillier grants the ARC wanted to fund.
He also put community and industry representatives on ARC bodies to let in a bit of fresh air, and now has a new chief executive, Peter Hoj, who last week vowed to start checking the results the ARC was getting from each handout.
Not before time, given the academics who have won another big grant to write a book without having yet produced the book they promised for their last one.
In a small way, these changes -- or warnings -- have already got results. Many of this year's grants did include some attempt, no matter how pathetic, to "prove" Australians would lead lovelier lives as a result.
So a $218,000 study of "Indigenising hip hop in Australia" is justified as helping "the musical development and career prospects of the next generation of Australian performers" of this imported anti-social "art".
And we're reassured that a $140,000 study of "moral panics and the law in 18th century England" has "contemporary relevance" for Australians who now see "governments legitimise their authority by helping to constitute popular anxiety about threats to moral and personal security".
Nice, but wouldn't a study of these alleged moral panics in Australia today be more useful than one of moral panics in Britain three centuries ago?
BUT let's stay positive. The new list of ARC Discovery grants does have fewer projects that seem so self-pleasingly radical or foppishly fashionable.
Fewer toy with sex, cartoons, our "genocide" and queer studies, for example, even though we have the usual faddish obsessions -- grants for 10 more investigations on gender issues, eight on race or racism, another five on reconciliation and seven on global warming. Plus a couple of studies on how anti-terrorism laws are a menace, and Islamism isn't.
And while I'm no great judge of scientific research, there's no doubt the ARC funds scientists doing work that seems exciting, useful and even inspiring.
These latest grants also go to research on curing stuttering, building a telescope in the Antarctic to detect the first new habitable planets, discovering when our universe first saw light, making a new bone-like material to help bones repair, predicting wind erosion and even whether we can use the ways bees land smoothly to design unmanned aircraft.
And social scientists will chip in with studies on suicide bombers, the secrets of a successful school, the chances of China becoming democratic, and regulating online investment.
But even if most grants were as well-spent as these, is the way the ARC grants them either fair or efficient?
Most controversially, the ARC grants are handed out by panels of experts who give grants to each other.
This year, for example, five of the 12 members of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel got grants themselves, including the chairman, Professor Stuart Macintyre, who got one last year, too. Professor Mark Burry shared in his fifth grant, and Professor David Goodman got his second in two years.
Five other members of this panel have won grants before, with Professor Vera Mackie last year getting $880,000 to study the "cultural history of the body in modern Japan", focussing on "the classed, racialised and ethnicised dimensions of the bodily experience".
Yes, these panellists are just the top academics you'd expect to be funded, and none get to vote on their own grants. Everything is done above board.
But there is no doubting there's a risk that other academics might think this looks too much like a mates' club, looking after its own.
And what an expensive club it is. Think of the money wasted by this system. An academic wanting a grant can spend a couple of weeks, with staff help, to prepare an application.
Then another two academics spend perhaps a day to see if it's good enough for the ARC to consider, before several "readers" examine it.
The grant-seeker then gets to respond to their reports and only then does a panel of 12 experts, all paid, make a final decision.
IN the end, the panels reject three in four applications for Discovery grants, all of which means taxpayers may well spend up to $1 to administer every $3 we actually hand out. And now the ARC wants to check the results, too.
How much cheaper it would be to simply give the grants money to the universities to hand out themselves, and to make them account for the results.
How much cheaper? Well, that would take research, wouldn't it? I feel a grant application coming on.
""all of $710,000 on a study of "attitudes towards sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman Era"?""
thanks for posting...I do now recall reading a few of Bolt's excellent articles...
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