UNIVERSITY RESEARCH—PERSONAL SADNESS

I have benefited from a vocation that has offered opportunities to indulge in research. It has been such a privilege. The excitement of being able to go into the field, to observe, to test ideas of others and develop one’s own hypotheses, and to be able to communicate these findings all defines this privilege. To do this with other like-minded individuals made this all the more enjoyable and creative. But this would not have happened unless more senior academics put their hope and trust in me to do the work on my terms.

This brings me to ask three questions: first, do similar levels of trust exist for university coastal researchers today that was encouraged between 1960 and 1990 when I was active in field work; second, what limits individual coastal and other scientists from doing similar things today; and third, have institutional changes taken place that will permanently impede the aspirations of research-minded academics to achieve their intellectual ambitions.

From my perspective there has been a huge diminution of trust over the last three decades within the university sector. By this I mean the responsibility for encouraging, supporting, and supervising what was essentially vested in heads of schools/departments. This was a vestige of the era of “god” professor. In some universities during this period Deans of faculties were gaining more power, but they still tended to operate in a collegial role. As a research fellow at ANU, and later in serving as a head of department at UNSW (Duntroon) then Sydney, it was assumed that I had the delegated responsibility for actions of staff. In addition, there were some resources available to help academic staff with field work, travel, and other research costs. This required an acceptance by staff that while there was a degree of freedom in how they undertook their studies, they were aware of risks and acted accordingly. Yes, there were “incidents”, but they were managed at a “local” level. The central task of the academic to acquire knowledge was more or less unrestrained.

Changes have occurred which limit those previous freedoms. Universities have become more managerial in ways many will now be quite painfully aware. I witnessed the emergence of the changed approach in the 90s as an administrator. Specifically, more regulations were introduced that placed researchers in difficult situations. I had one early experience of administration direction in the mid-80s when on a joint field project with ANU and UNSW in Kakadu I was told to have a gun. I resisted and won. But when Sydney University imposed stringent diving qualifications, I was unable to continue in the way I had over the previous 10 years. Then came the raft of other OH&S requirements involving administrators using various criteria that could impede ease of access to field work with or without students. The liability mantra was thrown at staff as if there had been a slew of legal case losses that required oversight from on high. With new technologies at their disposal it was easier to sit at a desk and develop computer simulation models than to get out into the field and undertake experiments and make observations in hazardous environments. Moreover, colleagues who could easily acquire information through interviews were now required to go through the lengthy process of ethics approvals. And university lawyers got involved in reviewing research proposals! Another layer of admin burden to overcome! And on top of all this came funding cuts.

Many staff in geoscience, geography and environmental studies today have come to accept this more restrictive world. No doubt financial factors have contributed as the “business model” of funding the sector depends more and more on overseas student income. This is occurring as student numbers grow with consequent demands on fewer staff. But institutional changes go deeper, impacting on quality and quantity of research across the sector. I hold the old traditional view that public universities have three goals: to acquire new knowledge; to transmit knowledge; and to store knowledge. By definition, an academic should be engaged in teaching AND research. I am not a fan of this new notion of an “education” focussed academic; in other words there just to teach. One sees pressure for more to leave behind their research aspirations and skills so that their KPIs will be separately assessed from those with active research programs. To be active researcher, there is pressure to obtain research grants from the highly ranked, established research funders like ARC or NH&MRC. Yet the success rate from these grant schemes is low and so transaction costs in time spent chasing grants is huge. There now are some excellent well-funded ARC programs and that is to be applauded. However, more and more academics are finding ways to be funded by external agencies and commercial interests, some with strings attached. There is considerable merit in obtaining such support and thus perhaps provide alternative avenues to publishing new findings. The term “captured science” is now being used to define research that is undertaken for a client where terms of engagement may be limited. I worry that this will impact on the basic tenet of academic freedom.

We live in an increasingly regulated world and this is something that academics are now more conscious of. Applications for Commonwealth funded grants should somehow relate to the “national interest”. I am never sure that we know what that means and whether it changes over time? When Ministers for Education start rejecting grants nominated by the ARC, which may involve overseas researchers, then I worry. More recent publicity shines a further dim light on current circumstances. A letter in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26th April, by the DVC (Education) at Sydney University, commented on matters related to potential consequences of conflict of interest. In it she states it is a “norm” of research life, that staff (and research students) are asked to declare any external interests and personal relationships “relevant to their role with us”. This letter received a critical response by Ian Falconer on 27th April. The use of the word “us” by the DVC dismayed me; I always thought, perhaps naively as a former academic administrator, that the university was its staff and students and administrators were there to serve them. But she went on: “All this is solely to ensure we can support our community to meet their responsibilities to the university, and those required by Australia’s high-quality research standards and regulations”. I am confused by this declaration that standards exist other than what academics achieve through international peer-reviewed processes. But the word regulations really worried me. The DVC was responding in part to an op ed by Brian Toohey on 25 April on requirements to fill out a form on external interests that “has more intrusive questions than an ASIO security clearance during the Cold War”. Toohey is aware of universities complying with requests from ASIO on national security grounds and Sydney has recently reviewed its international links. One possible impact will be an increased reluctance of academics to undertake international research projects, especially those involving China. Headlines in the Weekend Australian 12-13 June, the “CSIRO axes China uni deal”, highlights how our security services see threats from continued engagement in marine science. Having once years ago visited the Qingdao Laboratory and appreciated the value of international scientific collaboration in ocean studies, I feel disheartened that it has come to this. So much new science will come from China and continued dialogue of some sort is necessary in the “national interest”. But our government has other factors to consider besides good science relevant to global warming.

Yes, all these changes make me feel sad. I was the recipient, along with colleagues, of academic support at a different time. I only hope there may be a greater recognition by future federal governments of the need to foster both curiosity-driven and applied research. The heavy admin impediments need to be relaxed and more trust and funding support given back where it belongs, to schools and departments. But this means the current “business model” of funding research and teaching needs to be overhauled in recognition that the academics can do what they are trained and able to do—create new knowledge and communicate it as a public good.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com

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