British sociologist John Law begins a book on research methodologies by quoting from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:
‘There is no use in trying,’ said Alice; ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
‘I dare say you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen.
‘When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’.
The purpose of Law’s book is to provoke those who do research to think beyond the limits (outside of the box) of the accepted and approved ways of doing research. Outside of the boxes we have built to house our research, and to sell it to whoever wants to buy it (which is the way of the modern University) there may, in fact, be a whole variety of ways for making sense of the world that at first glance just seem impossible.
At the moment academics in Australian universities are in the Australian Research Council (ARC) ‘silly season’, madly putting the finishing touches to their grant applications in the hope of winning a taxpayer funded Discovery grant. Discovery grants are national competitive grants. University ‘block funding’ from the Commonwealth Government depends, in part, on the value of national competitive grants that the academics employed by a university are able to win. Success rates in these grant rounds are down around 20% - 4 in 5 are un-successful.
Academic careers are also built on getting these grants. The message in Faculties across the country is ‘Get your application in’ (usually disregarding the poor ‘pass’ rates). This message usually starts in the May/June period before the due date in the following March.
University research offices provide advice on how to win these grants, how to write an application which – in the social sciences at least (where I work) – does its best not to offend the sensibilities of peer reviewers and the expert panel that will rank your application.
This fine art of grantsmanship, from where I sit, appears to do its best to dumb down academic endeavour, and remove any hint of controversy from a potential application (after all, it has to be signed off by the Minister). In this process the term Discovery appears to be stripped of much that should attach to the idea of independent academic research (it some areas it may even be an oxymoron, up there with military intelligence).
My thoughts here are given extra currency on the day that the Sunday Age carries a story that alleges that the newly elected Liberal State government (or at least one of its department heads) threatened funding to Melbourne University if it didn’t oversee a trial on the environmental effects of the resumption of cattle grazing in Alpine parks in Victoria.
I do social research in youth studies and I have a particular interest in the ways in which ideas of youth at-risk have tended to point the finger at/shine a light on the most vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantage groups of young people. We, so it seems, need to know lots about their behaviours, their families, their schooling (and we probably do if we want to do something about disadvantage). I could get funding in a Discovery process if I wanted to play that game.
(An aside: with a colleague I am just about to start an ARC funded project with Mission Australia and its social enterprise training program for marginalised Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal young people at Charcoal Lane restaurant (http://www.charcoallane.com.au/about/
But this sort of research tends to leave unexamined a whole range of what might be called anti-social behaviours by/of the very well to do. There is no disadvantage without advantage.
Lots of people these days play fantasy sports. Here is an outline for a fantasy Discovery grant application.
Preventing the Next Global Financial Crisis: Identifying youth-at-risk of becoming hedgers and short-sellers
Turning the notion of youth-at-risk on its head this project will seek to identify the factors that place youth-at-risk of becoming hedge fund managers, bond traders and/or tax minimisation lawyers. The aim will be to develop interventions (at schools and in families) that can mitigate the enormous social, economic, cultural, health and well-being costs (for individuals and the nation) of the anti-social behaviours and practices of these sorts of professions.
My sense is that getting Discovery funding for such a project would be one of those impossible things!