Comment: Birmingham cancelled research – strike two in alienating universities

When conservatives want to make fun of scholarship they point to projects they don’t understand – remember Jamie Briggs? Perhaps Simon Birmingham did not want to do this, he certainly cancelled Australian Research Council grants quietly, may be because he knew outrage would ensure if he did it publicly, which is what occurred when Labor’s Kim Carr asked a question in Senate Estimates about vetoed grants.

But once ARC officers identified the universities where the projects were based that  Senator Birmingham stopped as education minister he went the full Jamie, “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’.” Do you disagree, Kim Carr, would Labor simply say yes to anything?”

This is dumb. It makes Senator Birmingham look a Hansonite ranter, quick to assume research with a purpose not immediately obvious is irrelevant. This rarely works out well. One of the studies the senator stopped, “music heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city” was to examine Elizabeth, in his home-state of South Australia and included the impact of the GM Holden plant closure there. Such prejudice is also selectively stupid – every year the ARC funds plenty of pure STEM research with purposes that only scientists understand, but politicians never complain.

What is dumber is that this is now a second strike against the government in higher education. The veto of ARC grants is insignificant compared to the effective end of the demand driven system, but it will add to the assumption on campuses across the country that the government is less indifferent and more actively hostile to education and research. Perhaps coalition strategists assume higher education is a lost electoral cause – if so, there are now two reasons why that will be self-fulfilling.


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