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Australia: And who will THAT inconvenience…?

September 6, 2013

The Coalition announced on Thursday it would audit and redirect funds from the Australian Research Council (ARC) in an attempt to curb government ”waste”, with opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey singling out certain projects during a press conference.

Among the projects highlighted by the Coalition is “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism”, a research project being led by Professor Paul Redding from the university’s Department of Philosophy.

In a private email to staff on Thursday afternoon, obtained by Fairfax Media, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence expressed his alarm at the Coalition’s actions. ”I was personally distressed to see that the work of one of our academics was on a list of topics unfairly criticised today in a Liberal Party press release, which has been reported in the media,” he wrote. ”The academic is globally recognised as amongst the very best in the world in his field.”


A ‘field’ that consists of three people, none of whom have done anything useful for several decades. And by the way, it’s ‘among’, not ‘amongst’.

For those who don’t know, the quote comes from Episode Four of Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: the new supercomputer Deep Thought is just about to be commissioned to solve the riddle of Life, the Universe and Everything. Naturally, the philosophers get shirty about it. And it ends with one of my favourite lines.

VROOMFONDEL: …We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!… You just let the machines get on with the adding up and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much… I mean what’s the use of our sitting up all night saying there may … or may not be, a God if this machine comes along next morning and gives you his telephone number?..We demand that that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!

DEEP THOUGHT: If I might make an observation …

VROOMFONDEL: We’ll go on strike!

MAJIKTHISE: That’s right, you’ll have a national Philosophers’ Strike on your hands.

DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

  1. Giacomo permalink

    Well, I think that your assumption might sound reasonable, but it is not! If Australian taxpayers were permitted to vote for which research projects are going to be funded, projects on physics or biology or even medical research would not be funded, simply because the taxpayers wouldn’t know the meaning of most of the words employed (would you be able to judge on the usefulness of a specific medical project simply reading the title? Certainly I wouldn’t!).
    I agree with you on one point: it is perfectly reasonable that politicians make the decision of funding the humanities only to a very limited extend (to my knowledge, the humanities are actually allocated only around the 10% of research funding, which is not much)- or even of not funding the humanities at all. But if they decide to allocate, say, the 0.1% of available funding to the humanities – then the experts on each field should be allowed to judge on the quality of the individual projects – after having read them, not simply on the basis of the title. This applies to the humanities, but to the sciences as well.
    So, about your principle of fairness: taxpayers should have a say on the research priorities (through the politicians), but experts (not taxpayers) should decide which projects in each field should be funded. Which is what is already happening!
    A final note: I don’t think that the simple fact that there is ‘Hegel’ and ‘Kant’ in the title makes a project useless. Without philosophers such as Kant, who demonstrated the pointless of demonstrating God’s existence, we would still be dominated by religious superstitions and God-talk nonsenses. To some extent we still are. So there is a sense in which I think we would need more, and not less, projects like this. In the public interest. But that’s just my personal opinion.

  2. Jon permalink

    My objection is nothing to do with the word ‘God’ in the title of the project. It’s based on the fairly reasonable assumption that if Australian taxpayers were permitted to vote for which research projects are going to be funded with their hard-earned money, anything with ‘Hegel’ and ‘Kant’ in the title is going to be way, way down the list. If you have reasons for thinking otherwise, let’s hear them. As it is we’re not allowed to vote at that level, so we have to vote at a higher level in the expectation that the people we vote for will carry out our wishes on our behalf.

    There’s a fundamental principle of fairness at stake here: are the people who provide the money going to have a say in how it is spent, or not?

  3. Giacomo permalink

    Yes – look, I don’t care about the VC’s argument. He probably didn’t read Redding’s research either. But that’s the point. Look mate, I really like the stuff you usually write, but you read “God” in the title of that project and you decided that this guy is some kind of crazy philosopher/theologian who loses his time talking about the properties of God and the like. But – and that’s my point – that’s not the case! If you read the description of the project, which is publicly available, and some of the things the guy has written, you will discover that he uses Hegel to show how the idea of God is something based on mutual recognition, and that this has implications on the way we think of norms and values. With all the crazy religious fundamentalists out there who want to do things “in the name of God”, it seems to me quite an important research. To some extent, even more important than understanding the subatomic structure.

  4. Jon permalink

    Yes. Look, I know science is unpredictable in its results, and funding any given research is like firing a shotgun in the hope that some of your pellets might hit a target 200 metres away. But when the target is down and to the east and you’re firing a shotgun up and to the west, it’s reasonably clear that you don’t stand much change of getting the first prize. At some point sanity has to prevail and the poor sods who are funding all this need to get some say in how their money is spent. Or are you just going to write off the poor bloody taxpayer as incorrigibly stupid and simply there for the fleecing?

    If you read between the lines of the Vice-Chancellor’s argument, it goes like this: “Redding is prestigious in his field and he makes our department look good, so we’re boosting his salary with a bonus from the grant in order to persuade him to stick around”. My concern is that nobody seems to have asked the PBT whether they want Redding to stick around or not.

  5. Giacomo permalink

    Oh Jon, I often agree with you, but I think you’re the one who is using a slippery slope argument here! Think of some Particle Accelerator used in physics, whose only use is to understand how the sub-atomic particles work. We have 4 accelerators of this kind in Australia. Each one of them costs several millions dollars (not to mention the amount of money which is needed every year to make them work). They don’t produce benefits equal to their cost! Still we fund them, because we think that understanding how atoms work is a good think anyway, and we also think that this understanding *might* produce some benefit in, say, a few decades. So are you suggesting that we should shout them down because they don’t produce benefits equal to their cost?

  6. Jon permalink

    Ooh, a slippery slope argument! Well, here’s the general rule: if the person asking for the grant can show with reasonable certainty that the work funded by the grant will produce benefits equal to or exceeding the cost of the grant for those people who provide it, then let the grant proceed. If not, not. Obviously we can budget for unforeseen contingencies, as long as we try to ensure that our net returns will be greater than our net losses. That’s not hard in principle; any insurance company does exactly that every day.

    But look at the Vice-Chancellor’s response. He’s not even pretending to claim that Redding’s grant is ever going to do anyone but Redding the slightest bit of good. His response is that Redding is ‘globally recognised as among the very best in his field’. Which is totally irrelevant to the issue of whether the poor bloody taxpayer should be required to shell out extra money, over and above Redding’s salary, so Redding can ‘research’ — which presumably means reading books about — Hegel, when he might otherwise be teaching or flipping burgers or doing something useful.

    Speaking personally, I happen to be globally recognised as one of the very best in the global field of over-50 Peggle players; but does that mean I should be subsidised by the PBT to do it? Where do I get my application form?

  7. Giacomo permalink

    Well Jon – and what about historians? and mathematicians? and astrophysicists? Should we stop funding them for the same reason?

  8. Jon permalink

    The question is not what he’s trying to say, though, it’s whether the taxpayer should be slugged for the costs of his saying it. Unless you can demonstrate how this is going to provide some return on investment for the poor bloody taxpayer footing the bill, I’m going to remain unimpressed.

  9. Giacomo permalink

    Do you know what is that project really about? I don’t think so – as a reader of your blog, I think that if you took the time to have a look at it, you might actually like what the guy was trying to say!

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