Funding Research in the Humanities: the View from Australia

Parliament House

With a new Australian federal government come new funding priorities. Research funding for the humanities appears to be low among them.

The new Coalition government publicised its plans to reduce funding for the humanities prior to the 2013 election. Part of that effort was devoted to ridiculing past grants for projects which were seemingly frivolous or wasteful.

The parliament is currently debating the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013. While this bill’s purpose is to approve ARC funding to 2016/17 and include indexation, an opportunity to mock valuable research was not missed by Craig Kelly, Liberal MP for Hughes in Sydney’s SW suburbs, in a powerful demonstration of the tyranny of ignorance.

Rather than engage in a debate about the merits of funding the humanities and social sciences, or even of individual projects, Kelly’s speech was dedicated to listing grants he didn’t like along with a set of sneering asides.

I want to go through a list of some of the expenditure items that occurred under the previous government. A Queensland university secured funding of $197,302 for a project titled, Sending and responding to messages about climate change: the role of emotion and morality. You have to ask what medical researcher missed out on funding because of that little research grant. A cool $578,792 was granted for a study of credit instruments in Florentine economic, social and religious life from 1570 to 1790. One of my favourites was the $314,000 for a study to determine if birds are shrinking. Another one was the $145,000 to study sleeping snails.

The fallacy that humanities funding – or any pure research funding for that matter – takes money away from medical research aside, that a member of the highest representative body in Australia assumes that this kind of belittling approach to some of the brightest researchers in the country is worthy of the federal parliament is the best evidence for why more, not less, money should be put into research in the humanities.

A spirit of inquiry, of fascination in the people and world around us and the desire to answer why it is the way it is, is exactly what studying the humanities allows to flourish. That is a valuable contribution in itself. But a spirit of inquiry across all spheres of knowledge is also a powerful indicator of an open society and, ultimately, of a humane polity.

That some members of parliament feel that this kind of goal is beyond modern Australia is more of an indictment of their own short horizons than that of the nation as a whole.

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