A couple of days ago I came across a passage I had written 21 years before, when I had left the world of full-time research policy and research-funding, a most turbulent time for me, and long before I had become interested in anthropogenic global warming. On re-reading it seems to me that I could have written this whole passage (slightly edited for tense) today. See what you think.
‘Emigre Polish social scientists in the 1980s, fascinated and somewhat repelled by Western theorising about Marxism, coined the term ‘really existing socialism’ to provide a focus for their own analysis of Marxism as they had experienced it. ‘Research’ needs some such alternative form, for ‘really existing research’ often is and has been quite unlike the ‘research’ that is talked about in political argument, or is described in the statements issued by the learned academies and in policy papers.
The world of ‘really existing research’ does contain what we read about: great discoveries, the most ingenious solutions to problems, a lifetime’s search for an answer ending in success, great books which change the way we think, new processes which aid humanity. It also contains another dimension, one which we are embarrassed about, and are usually reluctant to deal with. It is sad but true that many academics do no research at all, or do very little. A few researchers lie and cheat to achieve fame, fake their experiments or plagiarise the work of others. Some referees paint their protégés as young Einsteins, or vilify rivals and their work: the peer review system is a most human mechanism for deciding which researchers to fund. Much of the research that is actually done is of interest only to the researcher and to one or two others.
The major result of much research is an enhancement of the curriculum vitae of the researcher. A second major result, in the case of many researchers, is a reduction in the amount of teaching done. A third major result, for the most productive researchers, is an enhanced capacity to travel the world at other people’s expense. Almost everybody believes that he or she is more talented, and his or her work more original, than is really the case.
This is true of countries, as well as of individuals, groups, departments and universities. Australia is not of great consequence in the world of really existing research, and could stop doing it tomorrow without disturbing the world’s research effort to more than a slight degree. Research is above all a pleasant pastime that you carry out with other people’s money. These are the things that are not often said about the world of really existing research. In the late 1980s it became possible, and necessary, to confront them. They have not gone away, and remain a problem for granting organisations, vice-chancellors and deans.
But the solution is not to stop doing research. Research is a means, not an end. At its best, it is above all else the activity which expresses a most important human attitude, perhaps the most important one of all: that problems are solvable, and that humanity will advance only by solving the problems that confront it. That too applies to countries as well as to humanity at large. Australia has its own problems, and Australians must learn how to solve them. That task requires a national research effort, a degree of self-awareness on the part of Australians that they are responsible for their own mess, and a preparedness to fund the necessary research. In the early 1980s that self-awareness and preparedness hardly existed. In the early 1990s they began to emerge. The challenge, for governments, research agencies and the research community, is to ‘lift our game’.
Lifting our national game does not translate straightforwardly into spending more money on research; research is only one of the activities that are important to the present and future life of a nation. Lifting our game does not mean that every academic has to be engaged all the time in ‘front-line’ research; few of us are good enough at research to justify such a rule. Nor does it mean that research should be concentrated in a few universities that are thought somehow to be ‘excellent’ at everything. No university in the world is ‘excellent’ at everything. All Australian universities are mixtures, of the excellent, the pretty good, the mediocre, the plainly bad. They need to improve themselves, and they are doing so. Research is only an aspect of that process.
To the best of my knowledge, no Australian academic has ever been dismissed for failing to do research, and none is likely to be. For all the rhetoric, the really important research comes from a variety of sources. It is done by a few people much of the time, by rather more people some of the time, and by quite a lot of people once or twice. What is necessary to improve the universities’ research performance is the linking of research to some national purposes, and the provision of opportunity to conduct research. By and large, that opportunity exists, and a competitive funding system, for all its faults, provides some of that opportunity.
The great sadness of this period was not the abuse I received. It was the discovery that some academics saw no need in public life to obey the canons of rationality that they professed to follow in their teaching and research. Watching the performance of one or two noted scientists over much of that period I could not help wondering whether anyone who behaved like that in public life could indeed be as good a scientist as reputation made out. When academics resort to exaggeration, distortion, groundless assertion or myth-making they demolish the notion that they and their colleagues are engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth. They produce the same unease in the beholder as the sight of a medical practitioner drinking heavily or chain-smoking.
I do not believe that academics can follow two quite different moral orders, one for the laboratory bench or the library, the other for public life. If we are indeed a profession, then we follow the dictates of our profession all the time. That means a respect for truth, for evidence, for the power of argument, for accepting that one can be wrong. To defend the existing state of affairs in defiance of the evidence that something is badly wrong is not the mark of a professional, let alone of an intellectual. It is simply the response of someone determined to protect a vested interest.’
I wouldn’t change anything in that statement today. But I have learned that hitching research to ‘national purposes’, most necessary in the 1990s to gain a greater share of public money, comes with a cost. The national purpose can overwhelm the research, and force it into arid and unproductive pastures, which is what has happened to research in the global warming and ‘climate change’ field.
None of this is new: governments in the 1950s and 1960s set up numerous research groups to provide answers to questions and problems that concerned governments. Very often tension developed between the research groups and the governments, which wanted answers faster, and often in a particular direction. That is happening today.
But it is time for someone in power to see that this is finally a waste of taxpayer’s money, and put an end to it. I hope that the Abbott Government is up to the task.