What is university research for?

Every year, Australian academics spend long hours preparing applications to the Australian Research Council, which awards grants to the most highly ranked projects. Each application is scrutinised by experts in the field and judged by panels of leading scholars. Before the awards are made, they have to be signed off by the Minister of Education, usually a routine bureaucratic step. However, for the ARC round for 2022 funding, the Minister rejected six projects selected by the ARC, causing howls of outrage from the university sector. The projects were selected on academic merit. The Minister was jeopardising the reputation of Australian scholarship by injecting a political assessment into the process.

(Incidentally, if the Minister is going to veto projects, why not do it at the beginning, based on titles and abstracts, thereby saving researchers the effort of preparing their applications?)

There have been ministerial vetoes in several rounds of ARC applications in recent decades, nearly all of them being projects in the humanities and social sciences. One interpretation is that the Minister is appealing to voters who think academics are self-interested and privileged.

The vetoes can also be seen as part of a wider process of channelling university research in the direction of the “national interest,” usually interpreted as serving commercial or government interests. For years, all ARC applications have had to include a justification for how the proposed project serves the national interest. Apparently the “national interest” means commercial interests: the government has been pushing for more commercially oriented research.

These pressures raise the question of the purpose of university research. Just because there are profits to be made does not necessarily make something worthwhile. The classic example is the tobacco industry, which sponsored lots of research, but only continued supporting researchers who gave results serving the industry. Association with the tobacco industry is now a source of stigma, but this was not always true.

Today, some of the most corrupt research practices thrive in biomedicine. The pharmaceutical industry carries out its own research and sponsors research by academics. Research favouring industry products is far more likely to be published. In some cases, academics are listed as authors of papers ghostwritten by industry scientists. Dissidents may be subject to discrimination and reprisals.

Quite a few scholars have pointed to the corruption of academic research by commercial interests. Findings about drugs and environmental impacts, among other topics, are skewed towards the interests of companies, harming the public interest. The classical ideal of independent, disinterested research was never achieved, but with commercial inroads into universities, the reality is further than ever from the ideal.

It is quite common for scientists’ research to be sponsored by a company or government with a vested interest in the outcome. For the scientists, this represents a conflict of interest and should make the results suspect. Greater commercialisation accentuates this problem, indeed makes it a goal. It is a perversion of the ideals of independence to encourage and reward sponsorship of research by vested interests.

Philip Mirowski writes about commercialisation of US scientific research

What’s off the agenda?

The emphasis on commercialisation leads to neglect of research that serves human needs but has little or no profit-making potential. There are numerous areas where research is vitally needed but where results are likely to be contrary to commercial or government interests.

Industrial democracy involves workers participating in decisions about how to carry out jobs and sometimes even what products to produce. Some managers encourage limited forms of worker participation, but deeper forms are usually discouraged because they cut into managerial prerogatives. This is despite research, going back many decades, suggesting that greater worker participation can improve productivity. Decades ago, several Australian social scientists, including Fred Emery and Trevor Williams, were leaders in research on industrial democracy, but this pioneering work has fallen into a vacuum.

Even ignoring the benefits of greater productivity, greater worker participation has been shown to improve the quality of working life, more than improvements in salaries and conditions. Research into industrial democracy is a social good, but don’t expect companies or governments to sponsor much of it.

One of the most exciting areas today is the production of goods and services through the cooperative efforts of unpaid contributors. The most well-known example is free software. The computer operating system Linux is superior to proprietary alternatives, and it was produced through non-commercial means. Open-source approaches are now found in many areas, including colas, drug development and solar technology. Combined with 3D printing, open-source software opens the possibility of a jump in productivity using an entirely different model: distributed production with free sharing of ideas.

In the face of such emerging initiatives, pushing universities in traditional commercial directions is retrograde.

Research into peace and human rights is vital for dealing with the problems of war, genocide, torture and exploitation. Governments spend an enormous amount of money funding militaries, including military research, collectively feeding the war machine and human rights abuses. Scientists continue research into weapons, and there is a long history of militaries drawing on university research. By comparison, research into nonviolent methods of struggle is extremely limited, despite pathbreaking findings that challenging repressive governments through nonviolent means is more likely to be effective than armed struggle.

A different agenda

Pushing university researchers to serve government and corporate interests accentuates a decades-long trend away from independent research into areas of human need. However, it should not be assumed that priorities for university research set by scholars are necessarily worthwhile.

It has long been the case that researchers seek money, preferably with no strings attached, to carry out their pet projects. They want support without accountability except to their scholarly peers. This can lead to research that serves the researchers, with publications, status, promotions and prestige, but has little wider benefit.

Within research fields, jargon and esoteric theory can proliferate, so outsiders cannot easily understand studies, and topics pursued that have little potential social relevance. In some instances, so-called pure or blue-sky research turns out to have immense practical spin-offs. Are these the exceptions?

Nicholas Maxwell, a philosopher of science, argued that research agendas should be changed from a search for knowledge to a search for wisdom. Knowledge is not necessarily beneficial, such as knowledge about how to kill or exploit people. Maxwell’s “philosophy of wisdom” involves research to serve human needs, for example addressing issues of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction.

Following Maxwell’s analysis, the goal for university research should not be ivory-tower investigations, simply following the agendas of academics, but a greater orientation to pressing social issues. This means not separation from society, but wider community participation in setting research agendas. Corporations and governments should have a say, but so should farmers, builders, nurses, teachers, parents, people with disabilities and a host of others.

Rather than posing a dichotomy between ivory-tower research and research driven by government and commercial priorities, there is another option: research agendas shaped by input from members of the wider community – the ones who should be benefiting in the long run.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Clark Chilson, Jungmin Choi, Caroline Colton and Olga Kuchinskaya for useful comments.