The Niche, Elitist Research Of Universities: A Waste Of Money

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3 October 2023
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In this article, Brianna McKee contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the use of taxpayer-funding within Australian university campuses, conducted as part of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program.

The Foundations of Western Civilisation Program was established in 2011 to defend and extend Australians’ understanding of the influential, historical role of the West in establishing many of the liberties enjoyed by members of our society.

Each year more than $12 billion disappears into the abyss vaguely described as ‘research and development’ in the higher education sector. By way of return on this ‘investment’, there has been a steady flow of research projects demonstrating an unhealthy fixation on the niche, the ideological, and the political.

Hardworking Australians would be justified in asking where their money goes and who oversees its dispersal.

The allocation of grant largesse is decided by the team of bureaucrats at the Australian Research Council (ARC). The fate of the intellectual culture of our nation rests in their hands.

Yet, research released by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2019 confirmed the extent to which university grants are focused on class, race, and gender and just how much Australians are paying for it. The IPA report Humanities in Crisis: An Audit of Taxpayer-funded ARC Grants found the ARC had distributed $1.34 billion in funding to humanities research between 2002 and 2019. The dominance of identity politics in successful grant applications raises questions about the objectivity of the allocation process.

The ARC claims its mission is ‘to grow knowledge and innovation’ for the benefit of the Australian community. However, the audit found that ‘identity politics’ and ‘Indigenous history’ were the two most common themes in successful grant applications. In contrast, the ‘rule of law’ and ‘free speech’ were among the least common themes. This more than suggests that post-modernist themes are being promoted at the expense of the values, culture and history of Western Civilisation.

In fact, tertiary research that fails to pay tribute to postmodern thought is disadvantaged on two fronts. Not only is it less likely to secure a grant, but it is further undermined by the funded postmodern research which attacks rather than promotes Western thought.

When the IPA first released its research there was a justified outcry, but the caravan moved on quickly and to this day taxpayers continue to receive a very poor return on their money.

One of the most glaring examples is that of the Sydney Environment Institute’s (SEI) 2024 collaborative grants. From calculating the carbon footprint of medical procedures to interrogating the environmental narrative around the Botany Wetlands, SEI grants highlight the decline of research into a process of propaganda production.

The first grant tackles the theme ‘environmental justices’ which is part of the SEI’s broader goal to ‘reconceptualise justice’ itself. ‘What would justice across the human-more-than-human world look like and entail?’ SEI researchers ask. It must be ‘sufficiently capacious’ to accommodate ‘climate change, Indigenous rights, resource depletion, and industrial farming.’ This leads them to conclude, conveniently, that the solution to injustice is more collaboration between academics like themselves, artists and activists.

A second grant examines the theme of ‘biocultural diversities’ which focuses on finding ‘inclusive solutions’ to issues like biodiversity loss and social inequality. ‘This theme champions and values biological and cultural diversities by elevating Indigenous knowledges and exploring diverse ways of engaging with our living world,’ SEI researchers explain. ‘We aim to better understand and cultivate appreciation for diverse human and non-human lives, knowledges and cultures.’

A third grant falls under the theme of ‘climate disaster and adaptation’. SEI researchers note that ‘communities and ecosystems are increasingly threatened, disrupted, and displaced’. They continue: ‘Mitigation and resilience are no longer sufficient and new climate realities require adaptation, and radical shifts in how diverse communities respond to disasters.’

These research themes raise a few important questions. First, in the case of ‘environmental justices’ has the SEI manufactured a problem and then a solution? If justice is not reconceptualised, the problems they discovered disappear rather quickly. Second, why does the ‘biocultural diversities’ theme emphasise ‘Indigenous knowledges’? Is there a hidden political agenda at play here? Third, why does the SEI’s description of ‘climate disaster and adaption’ use language like ‘radical shift’ and ‘disaster’? The apocalyptic language and sense of urgency evoked does not appear to suit the tone of a research institute.

According to the SEI, based at Sydney University, its research addresses ‘some of the greatest challenges of our time’. However, designing a ‘carbon footprint calculator’ or the ‘implications for justice’ linked to mangroves would be considered a top priority by very few.

These vanity projects highlight the gulf between mainstream Australians and those individuals who hold positions of power in governments and the tertiary sector. Ultimately, the millions spent on research and development each year do little to serve the public interest.

Mainstream Australians have every right to ask why they should fund projects which, far from benefiting society, are designed to undermine the values, principles and knowledge that made the West as free, prosperous and successful as it has been.

What is more, Australian universities are established by government legislation, built on public property and largely backed by government grants and state-subsidised loans. Consequently, universities are effectively public institutions dependent upon and, therefore responsible to, taxpayers.

Finally, IPA research reveals a two-fold problem. Firstly, with the prioritisation of certain research themes in the grant allocation process. Secondly, with the flow-on effects on researchers who are likely aware there is a higher chance of being awarded a grant if they focus on issues of class, race and gender. The evident bias represents a profound problem for the integrity of tertiary research in Australia.

It is clear the system requires comprehensive reform. With the future of higher education hanging in the balance, mainstream Australians need to exert pressure on politicians to demand more from universities, and to hold them to a higher standard and deliver research that benefits us all.

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