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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    Well Don, I couldn’t argue with your 4th paragraph (“The major result of much research …”). That is about as succinct a summary of the destructive effects of government directed research priorities as I’ve seen. Those points go a long way toward explaining why some academics and research scientists do no real research at all. At most they put their name on grants, give talks and oversee chain-gangs of postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. One of the things that struck me on first reading the Climategate emails was how many were sent ‘in haste’ by someone bragging they were at a meeting in some exotic location.

    However, although probably true 21 years ago, I don’t think this statement holds up any longer:
    “To the best of my knowledge, no Australian academic has ever been dismissed for failing to do research, and none is likely to be.”

    In the sense of ‘real research’ it may be true, but if that academic fails to bring in research dollars, then administrators will try to get ride of him (and possibly her), at least in the sciences. I’ve watched it happen, and while it is true that those that fought back could not be budged, mostly they just hung on until the next restructuring ‘retirement’ package came along and then quit. Modern academia is a machine that acquires and spends tax dollars and any academic who does not contribute to that function is considered dead wood.

    Where your statement really falls down, though, is for those trying to get a job. Without strong evidence that they can turn government money into high impact publications and a stream of grants, they would not even be considered for a job in academia. They wouldn’t make the first cut. Possibly this isn’t true in the arts but in my experience it is true in the sciences, even the squishy ones.

  • David says:

    Don

    I like that post

    I know you love to characterize AGW as mindless orthodoxy. But AGW was first proposed by the Swedish physicist Arrrhenius in 1896. His ideas were ignored for first 40 years, laughed at for the next 40 and only taken seriously in the last 30 or so years. Have a look at this quote from wiki

    “Arrhenius estimated that halving of CO2 would decrease temperatures by 4–5 °C
    (Celsius) and a doubling of CO2 would cause a temperature rise of 5–6 °C.[10] In his 1906 publication, Arrhenius adjusted the value downwards to 1.6 °C (including water vapor feedback: 2.1 °C). Recent (2014) estimates from IPCC say this value (the Climate sensitivity) is likely to be between 1.5 and 4.5 °C.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svante_Arrhenius

    Then on Judith Curry’s website she offers the following summary of some recent analysis published by a favored Climate Scientist called Nick Lewis.

    “The new report suggests that the inclusion of recent evidence, reflected in AR5, justifies a lower observationally-based temperature range of 1.25–3.0°C, with a best estimate of 1.75°C, for a doubling of CO2.”

    http://judithcurry.com/2014/03/05/lewis-and-crok-climate-less-sensitive-to-co2-than-models-suggest/

    So Lewis’s estimate of 1.75 degrees is very close to Arrhenius’s revised estimate of 1.6 degrees published all those years ago. And both of these estimates are less
    than recent IPCC estimates. That is really quite amazing effort by Arrhenius!

    Don even you would have to tip your hat to Arrhenius.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      They’re still all estimates, David. I am well aware of Svante Arrhenius. It’s worth remembering that he is best known for his work on electrolysis. He won a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1903.

      I don’t as it happens ‘characterise AGW as mindless orthodoxy’. Rather, I think that the prophecy of catastrophe should we not decarbonise our economy has become a religion, and all political parties are careful not to alienate the religious.

      I am agnostic about the science, apart from the radiative transfer physics, since observations don’t support its projections, and completely sceptical about the utility of carbon taxes and similar moves to decarbonise: they have no effect on total greenhouse gas emissions or temperature, and inflict unnecessary economic pain on everyone.

      • David says:

        I share some interesting science with you and respond with a disjointed polemic.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Did you mean to write ‘you respond…’?

          Perhaps I should have said, ‘Thanks, I’ve seen this before, and you’re right, it is interesting. But estimates of the doubling are just that. There are dozens of them now, and the newer ones keep being lower than the IPCC’s AR4 estimates.’ I think that until someone has done the job properly, the best estimate is the straightforward one from physics: a doubling of CO2 will, all other things being equal, produce an increase of around 1.1 degree Celsius.

          Why is what follows ‘a disjointed polemic’? You began your comment with a criticism of my approach, and I defended my position. In what sense is that either mindless or a polemic?

          • David says:

            Don

            Yes I did mean to say

            “I share some interesting science with you and YOU respond with a disjointed polemic.”

            I did not refer to your post as “mindless”. I said that it was a a “disjointed polemic”. And it is. It jumps all over the place.

            * They are only estimates

            * Arrhenius won a Nobel prize for chemistry

            * We should not decarbonsie our economy

            * You don’t like carbon taxes

            * …they inflict unnecessary pain etc

            The point of my post was that, despite all the debate about AGW, isn’t it interesting that 100 year old science done with paper and a 2B pencil can continue to be so close to contemporary analysis conducted with computers and sophisticated modeling 100 years later.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Sorry, my mistake. You did say ‘disjointed’, not ‘mindless’. I made them equivalent.

            Disjointed? It didn’t seem so at the time, but I probably wrote too fast, and didn’t connect. I’ll try to do better next time.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      David

      Thank you for your comment. Perhaps what is amazing is not so much that Lewis’ finding is close to Arrhenius’ revised one, but that he relied on simple laboratory tools; and that despite all the sophisticated modelling and extensive data used by today’s scientists, the estimates of Arrhenius are likely to be closer to the mark.

      What I find also interesting is that the IPCC’s current estimated range of sensitivity is from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees, the upper figure considerably higher than the revised ones from Arrhenius and Lewis. After all the research that has been done, is that the best the IPCC can do? It seems to me that the “doom and gloom” predictions use the upper end of the range as justification, while the lower end allows a far more benign scenario – is this a means to avoid future embarrassment? Or is the wide range an effort to keep the peace among widely divergent views of researchers whose work is referenced by the IPCC?

      The impact of those upper estimates has been far from trivial on Western society. For example, being a Brisbane man you’ll be aware of your own expensive desalination plant lying idle, but still incurring maintenance costs. Then we have expensively subsidised renewables as well.

      Do I tip my hat to Arrhenius? Yes indeed, given what little he would have known about climate physics, a field about which we still know too little. His revised estimate on the sensitivity may turn out to be quite good, but we may find there are other variables which offset the rises he predicted. In fact, the chart Don put up the other day with temperatures of the last 13-14 years, overlaid on the steadily rising levels of carbon dioxide, encourages me to rely far more on the various climate and solar cycles that we have now identified, and attach very low significance to carbon dioxide levels as a cause of warming or cooling. My view is further supported in that proxy records show that increased levels follow warming by about 800 years.

      So Arrhenius’ observations and calculations may have been quite sound, but the scope of selected variables far too limited. This is not to decry his contribution to science, but rather our failure to use that contribution well.

      • David says:

        Hi Peter,

        Yes, I do agree Arrhenius’ revised estimate was impressive given his simple laboratory tools etc.

        The IPCC don’t do the research, they summarize the research that has been done by others. But lets assume for argument’s sake that the Lewis’s estimate of 1.75% is correct. That suggests, the IPCC’s estimate is out by 71% [i.e.1.75% vs 3%]. I would like to know that every time I tried to produce an estimate that at worst I was only going to be out by 71%.

        You talk about the “expensive desalination plant lying idle, but still incurring maintenance costs”. In Brisbane we also have squadron of FA 18 Hornets lying idle as you put it. Are they a waste? I’m willing to bet we will make use of desal before we need the FA 18 hornets to engage in a dog fight with enemy jet fighters over Mt Cootha.

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          Hi David

          I do enjoy your sense of humour. Humourless souls can become quite didactic. So I can just see you donning your Biggles goggles, cycling furiously out to your FA 18 on the tarmac waiting for you, to defend your beloved Mt Cootha from the barbed attacks of sceptics armed to the teeth with argument and fallacy!

          Yes, we do build things to deal with threats; we even build Wivenhoe Dams in part to prevent Brisbane being flooded once again, and then get so swept up with the conviction that “it’s never gonna rain again, well hardly ever” (a la Flannery), that we’re quite reluctant to tip some out of it before the heavens collapse and threaten its very wall! And so Brisbane gets flooded because of a false climate of opinion.

          Yes, it is a matter of knowledge, balance, and judgment. And that’s much of what this argument is all about.

          On the IPCC reports, yes, I know the process. Ever read Ross McKitrick’s critique of the process? There’s a few others, but his is the most informed and thorough as far as I’m aware.

          Incidentally, do you think Lewis’ estimate is well-founded? If so, why?

          • David says:

            Hi Peter,
            I will check out McKitrick.
            I don’t think I would really be able to judge Lewis’s work. But I came across him on Judith Curry’s web site and she is a circumspect Climate scientist. I have started checking out her web page after Don recommended it. (Thanks Don)
            So I like that his estimates are at the more conservative end of the spectrum. I feel his work would be of a high quality.
            Im glad I made you smile. 🙂

      • dlb says:

        Sorry to butt in, but I stand by the construction of the desalination plants, which are often criticised by climate sceptics. Of course the dams would fill again, but no one had any idea how long the last drought would last. It could have gone on for another five years.

        The desal plants and the waste water pipelines are good insurance for Brisbane. Lets hope we never need them.

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          Hi dlb
          Where have you been? We’ve missed you.

          You make a fair point; I haven’t examined the case for the desal plants at the times decisions were made for their construction. Within longer term planning, I think they’re a very poor alternative to storing water on this eastern seaboard.

          • dlb says:

            I have been out enjoying some of our wonderful National Parks. Way out of the range of the internet and mobile phones!

        • Gus says:

          Australia has a notoriously difficult climate, mostly dry, but with occasional floods–this was always the case. But another problem that’s endemic in Australia is soil salinity. Salt is everywhere and if you build a dam, the captured water often turns into useless brine. This is particularly the case in Western Australia, around Perth, where many dams exist and where this problem shows up during droughts. A solution could be to move the population from arid areas to locations where rainfall is regular and fresh water more abundant, e.g., in the tropical north, but this is probably unrealistic. There may be a way, perhaps, to rinse salt out from under the reservoirs–something for geologists and engineers to consider.

  • […] It seems that a whole lot of research has been done that shows conclusively that ‘climate change’ is bringing more hot weather. For those who don’t know, ‘climate change’, as Professors Steen and Flannery understand it, is caused by human activity. Don’t ask them how they know: that is the actual official definition of ‘climate change’, and that is why I customarily put inverted commas around it. This  reprehensible distortion of our language has forced me to a coinage, which will be used without inverted commas — real climate change. It follows a piece I wrote some time ago about ‘really existing research’. […]

  • […] ‘really existing’  Anyone interested in that phrase in the title will find an explanation in this essay. […]

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