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Australia’s humanities academy warns against narrow view of funding

The Australian Academy of the Humanities has warned against a suggestion by shadow finance minister Andrew Robb that federal grants should be linked to innovation.

In an interview published in The Australian newspaper on 8 November, Robb said it is important that federal grant-makers, such as the Australian Research Council, fund research that leads to innovation and improves productivity.

The Labor government has funded “all sorts of questionable projects”, he said.

“We should be focusing on research that produces innovation, that will help drive growth and productivity and genuine medical and scientific advances. We should be backing our strengths”, Robb argued.

But the AAH president, Lesley Johnson, said such a view disregards the importance of humanities research.

“[This view] would seem to suggest that research outside of the medical and (part of) the scientific realm has no relevance to national benefit, whether this is understood purely in economic terms or more broadly in terms of our society’s resilience, stability, and quality of life,” she wrote in a letter to the editor published on the academy’s website.

The Australian reported that the political opposition has identified several recent ARC grants that it views as “wasteful”, including AU$578,792 to research the history of an ignored credit instrument in Florentine economic and social and religious life from 1570-1790 and an AU$210,000 study of the early history of the moon.

It is important to scrutinise and discuss funding practices in Australia, Johnson wrote in the letter, but “cherry-picking” and ridiculing projects funded by the research council detracts from valid discussion.

The ARC review process already considers the national benefit of the research it supports, she said.