Would Australia benefit from the Haldane Principle?

This year the Haldane Principle celebrates its 100th anniversary in the UK. Its key underlying concept is that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review and that ministers restrict themselves to setting the high-level agendas. Having moved to Australia two years ago from the UK higher education sector, I now miss Haldane. Dearly.

Initially, the furore surrounding a ministerial intervention into the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) research grants allocation elicited my outrage. Two of the arts and humanities grants vetoed by the minister were music related. ‘What of academic freedom?’ cried the ethnomusicologist in me. ‘The arts and humanities are valuable areas of research for creative and cultural industries and human wellbeing’, I shouted. ‘Censorship and dictatorship should be banished. How can one minister decide what is in the national interest?’ I raged.

Then I calmed down a bit. I thought about the fact that according to legislation the minister is perfectly entitled to do this. It’s legal. And there’s no Haldane Principle in Australia.

Politicisation of research

So why am I so infuriated? Like other academic colleagues, it was the unadulterated politicisation and baiting of academics to win popular votes that got my goat. It was also the absence of transparent debate and respectful communication between the minister and the academic community which incurred my wrath.

While some might find the Australian forthrightness in politics refreshing and champion the telling-it-like-it-is, tough-love approach, when it comes matters of national interest one would hope politicians have the leadership skills to appreciate that consultation and following due process are desirable. On that front the academic community was left rather wanting.

Perhaps that is what I miss about Haldane: the ability to contest and debate, in an evidenced and at least relatively civilised manner, the merit of academic contributions to knowledge and national priorities. For let’s be clear, Haldane has its drawbacks too and comes at a price: additional bureaucracy. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) provide the buffer against ministerial meddling, but as an organisation UKRI must ensure academic stakeholders evidence national benefit to keep minsters happy. Ministerial happiness ensures a stable national research budget.

The burden of red tape

In my time as a research grants manager in the UK, I saw the introduction of various reporting requirements designed to evidence claims of public benefit and research impact (read (inter) national interest). These included two-page pathways to impact statements, data management plans, the introduction of research output reporting via ResearchFish, open access mandates as well as the inclusion of impact and engagement into the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for public benefit and am an impact enthusiast. I approve of transparency in spending and am a staunch open access supporter. We have a duty to evidence benefit where we can. However, the increase in administrative reporting in the UK at least, is not automatically matched by additional monetary support via REF income or a full economic costing  uplift to help accommodate the additional professional staff, training and infrastructural resources required to do said reporting. The price to pay for academic autonomy and Haldane is perhaps this: increased reporting and additional associated costs, time and in some cases stress.

Trying to find a balance

Compare that to Australia. The REF-equivalent Excellence Research Australia (ERA) is not the mammoth, highly politicised data gathering exercise that the REF has become and is not currently tied to research income. Impact and engagement are new kids on the block and not tied to research income either, yet. Grants, although focused on national interests and rigorously assessed, currently lack the numerous attachments required in the UK. Post-award reporting and audit are minimal in comparison to the UK and open access is only lightly monitored and reported on.  A breeze, one might say. What is a bit of occasional ministerial provocation if it means reduced administrative loads?

I also wonder whether, in the Australian straight-talking, telling-it-like-it-is climate, legislation like Haldane would ever gain a foothold? Signs of additional evidencing requirements are taking the form of the national interest statement and impact and engagement while the benefit of academic autonomy provided by Haldane remains conspicuously absent. Could – or  should – the reporting price be used as a bargaining tool to batter for an Australian version of Haldane? Which do I prefer?

On balance, for ethical reasons, academic freedom and because I believe all kinds of knowledge to be valuable, I would opt for Haldane and the reporting burden. If this could be complemented by additional monetary, infrastructural and training support to facilitate the reporting even better. The icing on the cake would be some balanced, professional ministerial leadership. But let’s not get too optimistic, shall we?

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