Egging Brendan

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson might find himself with a few things to explain about his handling of the Education portfolio, back in the day:

THE long-held secret of which nine Australian Research Council grants were vetoed by former education minister Brendan Nelson may soon be out, with the affected researchers to be asked whether they want the details made public.

Dr Nelson vetoed three projects in 2004 and seven in 2005 (one of which had been rejected in 2004, suggesting there were nine academics involved). These Discovery projects – believed to be in the social sciences and humanities – had been approved by ARC peer review.
(National Rupert Daily)

Any embarassment that might cause our Brendan, will come on top of being made a liar by Kevin Andrews’ decision that Doctor Muhammed Haneef – reckless supplier of mobile phone facilities to family members who later turned out to be terrorists – will go into immigration detention if he ever takes advantage of his grant of bail. Last Thursday, The Times of India reported:

Refusing to go into merits or otherwise of the case of Haneef, who has been detained for the last nine days, or divulge details of the investigation, Nelson said there was “no intention to detain him (Haneef) beyond a period that is considered by the judge as appropriate.”

The report, ironically, is headlined “Haneef case: India promises Australia all help”. Pity it looks as if the promise was obtained under false pretences, making it completely void. But what do integrity and good diplomatic relations matter when you’ve got an election to win.

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33 comments on “Egging Brendan
  1. Adam Gall says:

    Ah, Brendan Nelson. A many-faceted fellow indeed. Such rich human complexity in such an attractive package.

    I can’t wait to find out what was vetoed. I already have some ideas on the matter.

  2. Mark says:

    I know one person whose grant was knocked back, and *coincidentally* had had his previous work rubbished by Andrew Bolt in his column. Any correlations there, and Paddy McGuiness’ briefing notes, might make for fascinating reading.

  3. Guise says:

    Let’s be clear about one thing: Ministerial capacity to interfere in the awarding of research grants – now enshrined in legislation – is the direct result of Andrew Bolt’s annual habit of rubbishing successful humanities projects. A senior colleague then at the ARC explained it thus: Brendan got such a ribbing from his Cabinet colleagues after Bolt’s column appeared in The Australian that he basically stormed back to his office and demanded to know why he’d been put in that position. The following year he was sent – at his request – the full project summary for every grant recommended for funding, rather than just the titles as had previously been the case. He took the lot home for the weekend and came back on Monday with his now notorious list of rejected grants. Same again the following year. Classics and gender studies, and especially some combination of the two, were the front runners for the Nelson red pen. He was repeatedly asked to allay concerns by explaining the basis for his decision. He never did. It will be interesting to see what justification – if any – comes out of the current interest.

    By the way – when Miss Julie was appointed Minister at the beginning of 2006 one of the first things she did was assure various researchers that she had no intention of intervenin in the grants process. Clearly, she has a thicker skin than the good doctor.

  4. Adam Gall says:

    Yes, my suspicion was that it was projects with words like ‘queer’ and ‘sexuality’ somewhere in the project summaries.

  5. Mark says:

    The person I’m thinking of was certainly studying queer cultures.

  6. Spiros says:

    Didn’t Nelson hire Paddy McGuinness to tell him what to reject?

  7. Paddy was one of Nelson’s “lay appointees” to the ARC.

  8. Adam Gall says:

    That’s what I heard. You’d think these guys could do their own ideological knee-jerking, but I guess that Paddy needed the cash.

  9. Mark says:

    The real story was that Nelson was being ribbed by fellow Ministers who read Bolt’s columns, and appointed Paddy et al so he could hold his face up in Cabinet.

  10. Adam Gall says:

    Yes, as Guise suggested.

  11. Mark says:

    Yes, but I’m suggesting that Nelson was more passive in the thing. That’s not to discount the apparent belief that he formed that he had to become a nutsoid culture warrior to enhance his leadership prospects.

  12. David says:

    I oppose any political intervention in research and am all for the importance of sexuality – but is it just me or are there a lot of dumb theses floating about?

    You know… stuff like “Buffy and Cleopatra: a rhizomeatic (de)construction of ‘popular’ ‘culture’ and the ‘liberation’ of the ‘clitoris’ as (s)explored through neo-cyborg voice(s)”. Okay I made that one up. But everyone who’s lived in a humanities faculty knows they go on!

    It seems like we putting up big “shoot hereâ€? target signs for the right wing populists.

  13. jack strocchi says:

    Mark on 18 July 2007 at 4:48 pm

    The person I’m thinking of was certainly studying queer cultures.

    Ahh yes, more cultural theory from nutso po-mos hell-bent on corrupting youth with silly sophistry. Thats just what we need to maintain our place in the top rank of nations.

    In reality some kind of extra-curricular quality control has to be placed on the publicly funded parts of the humanities and social sciences. If only to preserve public esteem for a part of the academy that has become a laughing stock amongst ordinary folk and competent scientists. Stove could see this coming 20 years ago:

    Physicists and chemists rightly try, therefore, to maintain a professional organisation, and a nut-screen, designed to exclude the teeming would-be Columbuses whose letters begin, “1 do not have a science-degree, but…â€?

    In less-advanced sciences, of course, the situation is proportionately different. And by the time you come to the festering slums, such as sociology and anthropology have become since the defeat in Vietnam, the situation is quite reversed.

    There, now, almost any innovation would be for the better, and the rankest amateur, if he could get his foot in the door, would be sure to raise the tone of the place out of sight, morally of course, but even intellectually.

    WHY YOU SHOULD BE A CONSERVATIVE by D.C. Stove
    Proceedings of the Russellian Society 13 (1988)

  14. David says:

    Incidentally, when I saw the Nelson banned lists ages ago I thought that a lot of them seemed genuine, valid and important research. Quite independent of that, I’m saying that I can’t fathom the fetish for wacky uber-cultural studies research that has risen so powerfully over the past 20 years. Dumb was too harsh, but sometimes, it seems that providing you sound ‘out there’ enough, and providing you find the appropriate oppressions(/resistances), you’re set.

  15. Guise says:

    David – there are certainly some nutsoid theses out there. My own thesis was completely irrelevant to society, the economy, or the betterment of humankind, and probably wouldn’t pass muster on a Nelson/McGuinness assessment panel. I can celebrate all sorts or arcane scholarship … but every now and then I come across work that I have trouble believing has any real merit.

    Yes, part of the problem is that there are scholars out there who don’t help their own cause in the way they promote their work – indeed, they don’t recognise that at some level they should make their work accessable to almost everyone; you should be able to read a project title and have half an idea what they might be doing.

    But that’s not the approach they take, and so they give plenty of ammunition to the Bolts and McGuinnesses. Bolt was more than happy to mock humanities research projects purely on the basis of what he thought their title meant. This was the truly astonishing thing. I recall a column of his which basically went along these lines:

    Here’s a successful science project. I don’t pretend to understand it, humble man that I am, but isn’t it wonderful that out great Aussie scientists are doing such Important and Useful Work.

    Here’s a successful humanities project. Despite the fact that I do not have the interpretive toolkit to make sense of the title, I fancy I know what it’s about, and isn’t it silly? What a waste of the taxpayers’ money.

    And so forth. That Nelson was lunerable to this kind of sophistry is a great condemnation of his character. And, sadly, just another dot point in this Government’s eleven year PowerPoint presentation on How to destroy the intellectual life of a nation.

  16. Adam Gall says:

    “But everyone who’s lived in a humanities faculty knows they go on!”

    All of the theses in progress that I’m aware of are engaged in contemporary debates in their respective fields, involve very disciplined approaches to their topics – even where they are interdisciplinary, and are contributing small but important things to the world. That they may occasionally involve subject matter that seems superficial or silly at first glance does not mean that they do not produce profound and insightful contributions to knowledge. If they do not in any way approach these elements, the degree will not be awarded. I’ve seen some very good theses asked for a resubmit – it’s far from an ‘anything goes’.

    I think that PhD theses are beside the point, however, because it is clear that the discussion is about ARC funded research projects initiated by professional scholars, and not by students who are still finding their way into their profession.

  17. Captain Oats says:

    I’m saying that I can’t fathom the fetish for wacky uber-cultural studies research that has risen so powerfully over the past 20 years.

    part of the problem is that there are scholars out there who don’t help their own cause in the way they promote their work – indeed, they don’t recognise that at some level they should make their work accessable to almost everyone; you should be able to read a project title and have half an idea what they might be doing.

    Without wanting to suggest that anything that calls itself or gets called “research”is good in and of itself and ought to be defended (not least of all because I’ve come to hate the very word “research”), I have to take issue with these attempts to identify and/or account for “bad” or “unworthy” research. There are so many debatable assumptions underpinning the above diagnoses — and let’s just ignore their less sympathetic versions, shall we? — that I almost don’t know where to begin.

    How about we consider, first of all, the extent to which higher education funding structures and policies — especially those put in place by the Howard Govt — have produced the very situation that Nelson et al. decry? For instance, aside from the Research Infrastructure Block Grant (which is calculated on the basis of funding won via ARC, etc., competitive grant schemes), the two main sources of university funding comes via the Institutional Grants Scheme (IGS) and the Research Training Scheme (RTS). Both of these grants are calculated according to a formula that incorporates Higher Degree by Research (HDR) data. 30% of the IGS funding is calculated on the basis of HDR enrolments, while 50% of the RTS is distributed according to HDR completions (i.e. number of Masters and PhDs awarded).

    With so much funding tied to post-graduate research, and with working academics under increasing pressure from Faculty management to increase their HDR enrolments and load, is it any wonder at all that there be less equivocation over the intellectual worth of a given PhD project? Is it any wonder either that a great deal of thought is put into choosing the “right” examiners for the project? Higher Ed policy at the moment is geared towards producing “research graduates” (which, by the way, is not at all the same thing as “research findings”, and certainly not the same as “scholarship”), and — surprise, surprise! — that’s what’s being produced. So if there’s so much “wacky uber-cultural studies research” out there, perhaps that’s because cultural studies academics, as with any other academics, are interested in keeping their programs and their departments and their jobs alive. And DEST has told them that the way to do that is to enrol and graduate as many PhDs as they can (and bugger all the wimpy concerns about soft issues like “quality”).

    Secondly, let’s consider the obvious question of exactly who is qualified to decide which projects are worthwhile or not. By what right can one discipline claim authority over another, and hence the power to approve (or otherwise) the projects/research of the other? While I wouldn’t go so far as to that there are absolutely no standards or principles that might extend beyond the limits of a given discipline, that doesn’t mean for a second that any academic from any discipline can or should be given the authority to assess the value of intellectual work from any other discipline.

    Thirdly, who says that “at some level” academics “should make their work accessible to almost anyone”? On the basis of what principles and model of research and scholarship — and, indeed, which model of social and economic organisation — can this claim be justified? What view of the possible uses, ends or rationales of research underpins the claim? You can damn well bet that this demand wouldn’t be made of nuclear physicists, so why should it hold for specialist humanities research?

    Such a view is traceable to a particular version of “the” Enlightenment view of the humanities and of scholarship generally, and that view emerged under particular conditions (in which, for instance, the idea of “anyone” referred to a much more restricted class of people than it does today). Accordingly, for the view of scholarship, etc., that informs such a demand to be valid, let alone realistic, a particular set of social, cultural and economic conditions need to be in place — those, say, of the late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth centuries — and its highly debatable as to whether those conditions remain in place today.

    Yet, for all the talk of knowledge economies and information societies, etc., and about the desirability of increasingly specialised skills and knowledges, etc., it seems the humanities is the one domain that is expected to function in the same way and according to the same principles, etc., as it (supposedly) did when Immanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason. By what right?

  18. Captain Oats says:

    Confined to moderation again. Was it something I said?

  19. Adam Gall says:

    A very well constructed argument, Captain Oats, and one I substantially agree with. I maintain that, in spite of these issues, there is a strong commitment to quality even in this context, and even with respect to apparently superficial and self-indulgent topics. In my experience it’s simply not that easy to argue your way into a cultural studies doctorate without arriving somewhere intellectually substantial, and even with strong departmental/institutional interests in getting you through. It tends to manifest as ‘pressure’, rather than laxity.

  20. Captain Oats says:

    Cheers, Adam, and yes, like you, I don’t have much time for arguments that make out that such and such a discipline (usually cultural studies) is producing a plethora of light-weight, nonsensical puff-pieces, etc.

    I think it would be disingenuous to pretend that there aren’t some quality issues to be concerned about, but I see these as tied to broader institutional constraints and demands rather than as confined to a particular discipline. I’m very suspicious of attempts to make out that “bad quality” is simply the result of the supposedly lax standards and practices of “new” disciplines — particularly when those disciplines have themselves emerged from a sustained, critical engagement with other, more established disciplines.

  21. Adam Gall says:

    “I think it would be disingenuous to pretend that there aren’t some quality issues to be concerned about, but I see these as tied to broader institutional constraints and demands rather than as confined to a particular discipline.”

    I have to agree that there are still quality issues worthy of our concern, and I agree that addressing them is about institutions and not teh evils of postmodernism/cultural studies. I’m reluctant to enter into discussions on quality with anybody who doesn’t recognise that – hence my defensiveness: I see how hard my peers work, it’s as simple as that.

    Also, certain kinds of projects are being discouraged by the current context. That is to say, I am worried that some really important projects are being excluded in advance by institutional constraints.

  22. amphibious says:

    May I, amid the welter of all the obvious ‘right on’ and academic ‘with-its’, simply pose the question, “what’s the good of a new born baby?”
    Clucky responses such as “they’re gorgeous” need not apply, not because they’re wrong but because they are CORRECT.
    Oxbridge didn’t lead the world, until the rise of thatcherism, because of research into cross flow structural resonance of monetary drivel.

  23. Stephen Hill says:

    Not wrong Captain Oats, not wrong. There is definitely a lot of RTS funny games going on. I was talking to one university’s research office and discussing the lack of postgraduate scholarships, and he replied that while it was a barrier to many students, it also allowed the university departments to double-dip in that students go and do a Masters (which earns the uni around 100K) to earn a scholarship they should have earned in their honours year, and then give the uni a second and bigger serving of RTS subsidy for the PhD (adding another couple of years until aforementioned grad student is eligible for entry-level job).

    Also it wouldn’t surprise me that despite all the supposed fanfare from Kemp et al about reducing postgraduate completion times, if in areas uncovered by APAis if completions have actually lengthened in the last few years. I know a few departments where the university have lost contact with postgrads, where postgrads stop-and-start due to lack of money, the attrition stat would in some areas be pretty staggering. So when I hear Nelson lecturing scholars and students, what immediately draws to my mind is Nelson’s lack of administrative detail in running his own department, and what a complete f#@k-up he made of underwriting the new generation of scholars – when students were missing out on scholarship support with a 90% Honours grade average, there is only one’s incompetency this can be attributed to.

  24. David says:

    Institutional causation lies behind everything. Who cares. Crap research is crap research. Why walk on egg shells about it?

    Also you can’t blame crap cultural studies research on Howard seeing it came out of USA ages ago.

  25. Adam Gall says:

    Cultural studies coming out of the USA? David, do you know anything about what you’re criticising? Anyway, the so-called ‘rise’ of cultural studies in Australia at the expense of other disciplines relates very strongly to Hawke-Keating era changes to universities, and cultural studies is going from strength to strength in some contexts under Howard because it is doing very well at the moment in a tertiary environment where there is competition over students and over research funding. Blaming the Howard Government for the contemporary state of Australian universities is totally legitimate because they have been responsible for said universities for more than a decade.

  26. David says:

    Cultural studies as a discipline came from Britain. But I said “crap cultural studies research”. The intellectual origin of the really wacky stupid stuff, like the imaginary thesis title I created earlier, was literature departments of the USA in the 1980s and 1990s. But I take your point – shouldn’t single out cultural studies when that stuff is in many departments.

  27. David says:

    I have to agree that there are still quality issues worthy of our concern, and I agree that addressing them is about institutions and not teh evils of postmodernism/cultural studies. I’m reluctant to enter into discussions on quality with anybody who doesn’t recognise that – hence my defensiveness: I see how hard my peers work, it’s as simple as that.

    Why are you so afraid to attack bad research? Why are you only interested in attacking it providing it’s contextualised as the fault of Howard?

    If you think you should produce an institutional critique of the causal origins of something bad, you must first acknowledge that the localised actions are, in fact, bad. Eg. We first heap moral blame on the rapist, THEN we look for the problematic issues within society that produced rapists.

    Why are so many serious academic leftists afraid of criticising trite research? I think it’s because they are afraid of undermining the solidarity of the colleagues/comrades.

  28. John Greenfield says:

    The circumstances under which any Humanities academic needs a financial grant to conduct “research” are very limited. To access materials not available locally or online – such as the Vatican library, an archeaological site – clearly needs funding, but very little else in the Humanities requires “research” in the way that scientists need money for “research.”

    I would prefer to see our humanities academics spend more time learning about the actual humanities, you know art, languages, and like, stuff?

  29. No, what we need is specialised, three year degrees in stuff, with postgraduate courses available for students who want to go on to do more advanced stuff. Every Australian university should have a Faculty of Stuff offering a Bachelor of Stuff degree and at least a Masters degree in Stuff.

    Combined degrees such as Law/Stuff, Business (or Commerce)/Stuff and Science/Stuff should also be available.

  30. Adam Gall says:

    “Why are you so afraid to attack bad research? Why are you only interested in attacking it providing it’s contextualised as the fault of Howard?”

    I’m plenty happy to attack bad research, but I’m not going to do that publicly as long as there is a strong interest in the MSM and government of aligning particular disciplines – ie cultural studies – with bad research. In the meantime, I will be arguing in context against research or conclusions that I have reason to dispute ie through ordinary academic channels. As I’ve suggested, it’s not like bad research can just be produced uncriticised and unchallenged. Even very good research is challenged constantly, it’s debated and disputed, and scrutinised. What you seem to want is loud denunciation, and I’m not going to do that in advance of having looked closely at the research I’m supposed to be denouncing. So, I can accept in principle that cultural studies is as capable of producing bad research as any other discipline: in my own work, I am constantly finding problems in the work of scholars in my field. That doesn’t mean that I need to find the nearest media soapbox and loudly proclaim it, especially when there are bigger, systematic issues at stake that affect the university as a whole.

    What I am more concerned about is that a lot of disciplines are suffering because of an overly competitive system in which ‘utility’ and output are foregrounded over quality. Hence my interest in institutional critique. My point is that our main concern should be that, say, religious studies (as a hypothetical) has to suffer in order that cultural studies thrives. No matter how good the cultural studies research produced is, and I would argue that a lot of it is great and very important, I don’t think religious studies (hypothetically) should disappear. The zero-sum game inevitably impoverishes all disciplines.

  31. Captain Oats says:

    Is there some massive bell in the middle of the forum that I can ring? Because I think that this is one of those bell-ringingly rare events.

    John Greenfield wrote:

    The circumstances under which any Humanities academic needs a financial grant to conduct “researchâ€? are very limited. To access materials not available locally or online – such as the Vatican library, an archeaological site – clearly needs funding, but very little else in the Humanities requires “researchâ€? in the way that scientists need money for “research.â€?

    You know, if we qualify/modify the claim to keep in mind IT costs for certain specialist areas of Humanities research (e.g. multi-media, etc.), and keep in reserve the possibility that organising and holding international conferences on particular topics might also be worthwhile and require exceptional funding — if we add those possibilities to JG’s list, then I’m prepared to say that I kind of agree with him.

    Yes, I’m stunned too!

    Who would’ve thought that a culti-studi pomo leftist humanities academic such as myself might ever find a point of agreement with a John Greenfield?

    But JG, here’s the complication: the Howard Govt and DEST disagree with us. Once again, if you look at the policy and the funding structures, you’ll see that the only kind of research that is rewarded (and thus deemed worthwhile) is research that costs money. For instance, the Research Infrastructure Block Grant — one of the three sources of government funding for research — is calculated on the basis of the amount of income a university attracts from Australian National Competitive Grants (i.e. ARC, etc.). Similarly, a large percentage of the two other funding sources (40% in one, 60% in the other) is calculated on the basis of income generated from external sources, which includes again the ANCG register, but also industry funding, other public sector funding, etc.

    Now: any funding won via the ANCG grants themselves must be accountable in terms of the costs of the research, and, with the exception of ARC Fellowship applications, that funding doesn’t cover the salary, or any part thereof, of the “tenured” academic researcher (though it can include funding to cover the academic’s teaching commitments for up to two semesters).* So, basically, aside from a bit of funding to “buy out” of teaching, your ideal humanities academic has no reason to apply for ARC funding, but if he/she does not do so, he/she is not helping the University (hence Faculty) to bring in funding. The only funding that your ideal humanities scholar can bring in comes from the very limited pool of funds made awarded to publications (a pissy amount: approx. $1,000 for a journal article and about $5,000 for a book) and from HDR students and completions, which in the current environment (i.e. the research training environment) often has a lot less to do with research than it does with teaching.

    Consequently, the University/Faculty does not value your preferred form of “traditional” humanities research — precisely because it doesn’t cost anything other than that portion of the academic’s salary that pays for the academic to spend 40% of his/her time “doing research”, and that’s precisely the one cost that the various funding schemes don’t allow a researcher to recover for the university.

    I want nothing more than to be able to do the kind of research you want humanities academics to do, JG — i.e. engaging with bodies of knowledge, reading about important debates and issues, and writing about them — with the exception, perhaps, that I’m likely to veer into a few areas that you might judged as faddish, irrelevant, antithetical to “real” humanities work, or whatever. Alas, the current structures of Higher Ed. — and so too, therefore, DEST and the Howard Govt — don’t want me to do that.

    Perhaps you might try registering your disapproval at the way the Howard Govt has messed with humanities scholarship by voting against the “conservative” parties at the next federal election?

    * I’m not 100% on top of the details here, as they change constantly, so I will happily stand corrected on the precise amounts, etc.

  32. Adam Gall says:

    Where humanities scholars need money for research: wages for research assistants/administrators and money for travel. Doing research in one or many archives, or involving large numbers of texts, or an interview component, in a relatively short time-frame (3 years) involves more than one person for at least some parts of the project. Also, the idea that anyone working for a university actually uses 40% of their paid-for time doing research is laughable from what I’ve observed, at least during semester. Try 60/40: teaching/admin, with research on weekends or in the evenings. Outside of semester it may come closer to the mark, but even then there seems to be an awful lot of admin. And then there’s summer and winter school. And this is even after large amounts of teaching is done by casual and contract staff. (The university still gets paid for the research output of said staff, too, as far as I understand, even though they don’t pay anything.)

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