With Copenhagen looming and the parliamentary showdown over emissions trading underway, the public is being bombarded with claim and counterclaim about research on climate change. Now, I’m not a climate scientist, nor am I an economist. I don’t have the expertise myself to explain what is likely to happen to our climate in the future or how we should deal with it. Like most other people, I have to rely on those who do – academics and other researchers who develop theories, conduct research and offer recommendations. They provide the knowledge that informs our decisions about the best course of action. This is why I am disappointed when ideology and politics undermines public confidence in these research bodies.

I’ve spent a decent chunk of my life studying and working at universities. I know the importance that is placed on winning external funding – and particularly the prestige attached to grants from the Australian government’s major funding body, the Australian Research Council. And I know that the competition for those grants is fierce, and increasingly so – the success rate for ARC Discovery grants has been between 20-25% for the past five years. Only the best of the many worthwhile proposals are funded.

That’s why I was surprised when, after the recent announcement of the latest round of ARC funding, Andrew Bolt claimed to know a “surefire way to get a grant”. Bolt suggested that any researcher who wanted ARC funding should mention climate change as a way of getting into the good graces of Science Minister ‘Kim “Il” Carr’. He reported that ten percent of this year’s ARC budget went to applications that mentioned climate change, and rattled off a list of successful examples from different fields.

Anyone familiar with the ARC’s assessment process would know this claim is wrong on many grounds:

  • The selection of grants is carried out by the ARC’s College of Experts and independent assessors, whose recommendations are then approved by Minister Carr, so that selection is not influenced by the government’s political agenda.
  • The assessors rate the significance and national benefit of the proposal – an application might claim their research relates to climate change, but they will be judged on the strength of that argument and not just on the fact that they mentioned it.
  • The vast majority of the rating formula is based on the quality of the applicants’ track records and the strength of their research approach – even if an application is considered relevant to a priority area such as climate change, that contributes only ten percent of the total rating.
  • When you look at this year’s Discovery Projects results, the success rates for applications that addressed the strategic priority of an “Environmentally Sustainable Australia”, which climate change falls under, was 22.3 percent – no better than the rest of the applications.

But for those who don’t know how research funding operates, Bolt’s claims of political contamination in research funding may ring true. The irony is that a politician’s agenda did influence research funding once before. In 2004 and 2005, Brendan Nelson vetoed a number of ARC grants that had been recommended for funding based on the experts’ assessments. At the time, Andrew Bolt applauded Nelson because “he knocked back several of the sillier grants”. It seems that when you change the government, you change Andrew Bolt’s position on government influence over publicly-funded research. But both positions undermine – unreasonably – the public’s confidence that Australia’s universities are producing the best research they possibly can.

Aside from funding academic research, public funds contribute to our knowledge through statutory authorities such as the CSIRO. Recent news coverage has reported that a CSIRO environmental economist, Dr Clive Spash, may be prevented from publishing his work because it argues that a carbon tax is more effective than the government’s preferred option of emissions trading. The CSIRO is constrained by its charter, which says that its staff should not comment on the merits of government or opposition policy. But the charter also encourages openness and freedom of research, which is essential to extending our knowledge. Just as the public service provides frank and fearless advice, our publicly-funded researchers should ask frank and fearless questions – even if the answers to those questions might reflect badly on government policy. This should be reassuring – it means that the government can make its policy decisions based on the best available evidence.

Australians need to be assured that we are directing our research resources at important questions, using appropriate approaches and making the most of the available answers. Whether claims of political interference are real or imagined, they poison the well of research knowledge at a time when it is vital that we draw all we can from it.

(NB: Yesterday afternoon, The Age reported that Dr Spash’s paper will be published with some revisions. There was earlier commentary on this issue from Joshua Gans, Brian Bahnisch and Tim Lambert.)

UPDATE: On a related note, Andrew Bolt’s open thread for today has some comments about Professor David Karoly, who appeared on last night’s Four Corners program. Some commenters seem to regard Karoly’s government-funded research as a sign of bias. Interestingly, they don’t seem to have considered whether global warming sceptic Professor Bob Carter, who appeared on the same program, has received government-funded research grants:

Bob Carter’s research career has been supported by grants from competitive public research agencies, including especially the Australian Research Council. He receives no research funding from special interest organizations such as environmental groups, energy companies or government departments.

(NB: I also notice that at least one comment makes derogatory assertions about Karoly’s character – another regrettable lapse in Andrew Bolt’s commitment to keeping personal smears out of the debate.)

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