Thursday, September 5, 2013

What the money is for

We're in the final days of an election. Without getting political - well, maybe a little! - yesterday and today there's been much discussion of ARC funding and comments about what sort of research is funded, with the Liberal party claiming that there has been waste on "ridiculous" research grants. There's a piece on it here in the Conversation.

Aside from issues about who decides which research projects should be funded, as I talked to a few people, it occurred to me that a big problem generally is that people outside the university system don't actually understand where the money goes. There have been many misleading generalities about "millions of dollars," without specifying that the grants referred to are between $150-$600,000. That still sounds like a lot. Is it?

In many cases, that money will be divided among a team of academics at different universities. Sometimes it will fund someone who doesn't have a permanent position, enabling them to have an income while they do their work and contribute to the university during the period of the grant. It will also cover the project for three years or so (so for a $150,000 grant, that's only $50,000 a year). The budget, which will have been examined closely by the ARC itself, will cover such things as travel, costs involved in running conferences or workshops, research assistance, a PhD student or two, and occasionally some teaching relief.

While academics can often access travel funding, it seldom covers all travel expenses. In fact, usually it won't even cover air fare. Yes, academics often personally foot the bill to attend conferences overseas or to do research work that can't be done in their home city. ARC funding can be very helpful in providing the financial wherewithal to undertake a particularly large project where smaller grants just won't do the trick.

There are often limited funds available to run conferences and workshops or to purchase the equipment necessary, so for a big project, it takes pressure off School budgets if there's an ARC grant ready to go. It means, basically, that smaller projects can receive funding too, projects like the fairy tale salons we run at Monash.

Likewise, postdocs and HDR students benefit from doing research assistance work - they can develop their CVs, obtain valuable income, and have an opportunity to work beside experts. Academia is in many ways an apprenticeship, but one run on scholarships and research assistant positions. Not to mention, having research assistance or teaching relief takes pressure off academics trying to juggle teaching with their research. Believe me, it's difficult to maintain research output while maintaining a quality teaching programme and research really does feed into one's teaching, too. We don't just disappear to do our research because we don't value teaching. The new material I develop in my research goes straight into my teaching. That's why we're not all still teaching just the Grimms as the originators of fairy tale. ;-)

I'm really just sketching this out quickly, but hopefully people can begin to see that those millions of dollars are really about helping to support research within the academic system. No one is getting rich and no one is squirreled away in an ivory tower researching something terribly obscure for the sake of it. Trust me, we don't get a chance to do research just for the sake of it - we have to prove the value of our work every day and the ARC comes with strict expectations of viable outcomes.

I think in part this also comes back to how we think about the university system and research. Not all research has immediate relevance or a social/cash benefit. Not all research is about curing dementia or finding new ways to grow crops. Those things should be funded. Does that mean other research shouldn't? I'm always torn between the desire to justify such research and the desire to point out that most advancements in thinking and action are based on research that didn't have immediate relevance, but that helped to develop learning and knowledge. The Arts, in particular, can only do so much in providing practical solutions to problems - but the Arts can help us to think about those problems and thinking is the first step to a solution. If we can understand how attitudes are formed, what issues are evolving, what history teaches us... we can start supporting practical progress. Otherwise, who is really determining what is important and what isn't? What has value and what hasn't?

As a final note, ARC grant applications involve months of really stressful work just to put together and a very small percentage of applications are successful. What is ridiculous is not the research projects, but how little funding there really is available for research. 

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