Letter from Australia: In search of quality research

I heard a joke recently that goes something like this: a drunk loses his keys and is looking for them under a lamp-post. A passing policeman wanders over to inquire what the drunk is up to. “I’m looking for my keys,” the drunk slurs. The policeman has a scan around, can’t see them and asks, “Where did you lose them?”. “Over there,” replies the drunk pointing to a dark spot somewhere in the distance. “Then why are you looking for them here?” he asks, puzzled. “Because the light is so much better here.”

I got to thinking about this joke this week after we saw several developments in the research sector that all seem to be a case of looking in all the wrong places.

First up, it was revealed in Senate Estimates on late on Thursday evening that then-Education Minister Simon Birmingham last year vetoed 11 grants that had been approved by the Australian Research Council. The 11 projects, totalling $4.2 million, were all in the humanities and included two distinguished Federation Fellowships.

However, the scale of this action is unprecedented. The last time a minister rejected ARC approved grants was back in 2005 when then Education Minister Brendan Nelson vetoed seven grants, dismissed the entire ARC board and made the CEO Peter Hoj – currently vice chancellor of the University of Queensland – answerable directly to him.

Why Birmingham did this is anyone’s guess. The outrage on Twitter is both predictable and justified. The Labor Opposition described the action as pandering to “knuckle-dragging rightwing philistines” (the same philistines who oversaw the overthrow of our most recently departed Prime Minister). However, Birmingham is a moderate, not an ideologue, so stirring up the culture wars would not seem to be particularly within his modus operandi. 

Birmingham is not an intellectual but he’s smart. And there is nothing exceptionally inherent in any of these grant titles that would get the blood of a good old-fashioned conservative boiling. Well maybe the  $259,988 for a Monash University grant on ‘Greening media sport’. Or maybe one on “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist”. Or the one on “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms” or “post orientalist arts in the Strait of Gibraltar”.

No matter, there is a certain holier-than-thou arrogance of a man who does not hold an undergraduate degree (he has an MBA) to stake his claim in knowing better than the experts.

But with expert becoming such a derogatory term these days, maybe that was the ploy in the first place.

Research quality

As Birmingham was killing off research projects deemed to be of exceptionally high quality by the ARC – but not good enough by the Minister – the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel held an invitation-only roundtable to discuss that very thing – research quality. The focus was on research journals and what is known as the triple whammy: universities pay researchers to do the research; researchers increasingly pay to get published in journals; and then universities pay the journal publishers for subscriptions.

As we know, this has been going on for decades, and despite the open source movement, the academic publishers still seem to be turning a handsome buck out of their trade.

The meeting on October 16 was co-chaired by Finkel and Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Springer Nature. In attendance was a posse of 10 serious research policy boffins and practitioners, including the heads of the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council. And there were two observers – Sarah Brown, Finkel’s chief-of-staff and David Swinbanks, Chairman, Springer Nature, Australia and New Zealand.

So what has got a few people riled up about this whole shebang is that it appears that Springer Nature has been given equal footing to make decisions that would have a dramatic impact on how research is counted in Australia. Ahead of the meeting Finkel’s office issued a number of potential recommendations, including creating a “white list of journals”; “compelling researchers to publish in white listed journals” and “reducing the number of publications that can be included in grant proposals and CVs”.

Conflict of interest?

Obviously, the meeting was designed to address growing amounts of pointless research being published in pointless journals that no one ever reads and certainly never cites.

But surely Springer Nature having such prominence in the meeting would suggest a conflict of interest. If the so-called “white list” is made up of just five journals – as has been mooted – then the obvious winner in all of this is, well, Campbell. That he should have such intimate input on the development of potential guidelines seems odd and irksome to some in the research community.

As someone close to the meeting told me: “If the intent is to encourage a move away from the publish-or-perish mentality and reduce the number of publications produced (or the pressure to publish) then a much wider conversation needs to be started as its a systemic problem particularly tied to career progression – but mainly for the sciences.”

Indeed, there are huge implications for early and mid-career researchers. And by demanding that research publications in only a small handful of hyper-elite journals be counted for grant applications and for promotions, the ramifications and potential consequences are dramatic.

 

Where’s the money?

And finally, it seems $800 million has not been spent on research and no one seems to be able to account for its whereabouts. As Labor’s Kim Carr revealed a couple of weeks ago, government funding on science, research and innovation will drop from $10.4 billion in 2017-18 to $9.6 billion in 2018-19. Just where has the money gone is anyone’s guess.

It would appear in recent times, as the research community was drunkenly looking for its keys under the lamp post, the government was quietly siphoning off their life support.

One response to “Letter from Australia: In search of quality research

  1. Simon’s been the only Fed Minister to acknowledge my allegation of ‘zero accountability’ in research – owing to ARIC’s utter worthlessness. Perhaps he’s loathe to support misconduct?
    FYI the Streetlight story goes back to Mulla Nasreddin b.1208

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