By Dr Tim Cahill and Professor Julian Meyrick
Here’s a thought experiment. The government creates a public institution, let’s say an apple farm industry. The industry is supported to the tune of $3.5b annually, to grow apples. To distribute this assistance, the government decides on a mechanism where:
- Eight elite apple farmers get to decide how to spend 50% of the $3.5b – they determine which apples will get grown, by which farms, and allocate 3 year grants accordingly. They only fund ‘the best apples and farmers’ – something they can’t describe, but they know it when they see it.
- The other 50% is distributed by formula, allocated across all forty-two apple farmers, but based on how successful they have been in Step 1) – thus effectively reproducing the above distribution.
For decades, the apples the farmers grow are given away free of charge, to private, mostly overseas-based apple sellers. The apple sellers then get rich selling them back to farmers on the strict condition the apples aren’t shared with the public. In this closed loop, no one can say much about the value of the initial investment.
To quell speculation, the government, decides to demonstrate its $3.5b is “well spent”. The farmers say “we are the experts on growing apples, we are in the best position to judge.” So every three years they agree to report on how well they are doing. Turns out that, almost without exception, they are producing apples of ‘world standard or above’.
It’s a contrived example. But when government funding has been used to found a cloistered institution, as in the case of academic research, and this is overlaid with a thick coating of market logic, at some point someone will ask, ‘what are you actually doing over there?’ As the above illustration shows, it is difficult to imagine another public institution operating under equally enigmatic self-assessment principles as ‘excellence’ and ‘peer esteem’.
Thus in 2016 the Australian Research Council issued a consultation document calling for feedback on two potential research measurement indices, to be trialed this year: Impact “the contribution that research makes to economy, society and environment, beyond the contribution to academic research”; and Engagement: “the interaction between researchers and research end-users (including industry, Government, non-governmental organisations, communities and community organisations), for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, technologies and methods, and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”
On the face of it, it is a reasonable step. Research, like apple growing, is free but bounded. It requires an atmosphere of public tolerance, but you can only have that if you have trust. Research indices are a way of promoting trust. Trouble is, if they are mishandled they can end up undermining it. In this respect, impact and engagement emerge as two distinct concepts with contrasting motivations. Impact looks a lot like a proxy for market growth and profit maximisation, another contribution to the neo-liberal “global hunt for yield” that has run aground in Europe and the US. Engagement is, at least potentially, a way of genuinely opening up academic research.
Let’s take them one at a time. Impact is what happens when one object collides with another. But it can be also used metaphorically to describe an arc of originary forces and their resulting effects. The political scientist Hannah Arendt regarded an obsession with causative thinking as a decline in rational understanding, given the multi-causal nature of social and cultural phenomena. A search for impact, narrowly conceived, is black magic not assessment. There may be a limited number of scientific instances in which one can point to something like it. But in general it says more about the politics of the higher education environment with its mind-numbing slew of metrics and market manoeuvring, than it does about the value of research.
Engagement is a different kettle of fish. It is aimed at a better relationship between research and the public. Its long-term policy implications suggest a shift in the dual funding model away from ARC/NHMRC grants with their three-year planning cycles – anathema to breakthrough research – towards equitably distributed, institutional block grants, and centrally planned, outward-looking research agendas.
But there are forces that need to be carefully managed for such a transition to benefit everyone, including focusing on where research is done. Take the example of Korea. There, higher education research is almost entirely funded under peer reviewed grant arrangements. But few Korean researchers work in universities. The bulk are employed in the private sector, and the private sector is where research happens.
Australia is quite different. Most Australian researchers are employed in universities, and it is there where research happens.  This reflects the kind of private sector we have, comprised largely of SMEs, with most very much on the ‘S’ side of the acronym. The majority of start-ups are what the Chief Economist’s office calls ‘lifestyle entrepreneurs’. There are few researchers working in the private sector, which limits its absorptive capacity. But it also limits the opportunities for collaboration with university research.
Here’s the problem: without rules stipulating otherwise, incentivising engagement will mean that large corporations in research intensive industries (mining, biotech, pharma etc.) will likely reap the benefits of the new measure. Far from opening up research for the common good, it will be used to drive down bottom lines and exacerbate discrepancies between rich and poor. It will increase the likelihood of cash-for-evidence research, the hiding of negative results, and the locking away of government-funded research findings under commercial confidence agreements. It will corral the value flowing from research to the big end of town.
Somewhere in this complex set of competing interests is the opportunity to build a better system. The key is to have rules around what types of engagement we reward – with whom, to what end – that spread the value from government investment of research and dissuade concentrating it. The engagement agenda has to mean more than just big industry dollars and its proxies, and must focus on things like accessible modes of knowledge dissemination, research literacy in the public, real (not author pay) open access, open science agendas, and a slew of related reforms.
For the creative arts, where engagement is an integral and comparatively easily demonstrated part of existence, the new indices promise a step beyond blanket consideration of ERA-defined ‘non-traditional outputs’. Both the processes of making art and its reception garner the sort of wider participation some research projects might envy. However, it is important to pay careful attention to the politics, as well as the methodology, of their implementation. Just because the creative arts can be decanted into newly-acceptable measures, doesn’t mean they should be. Nor does this replace the quest for better public understanding of what the creative arts inherently offer rather than another functional calculation of their extrinsic effects.
But this is a long-term goal. In the meantime, certainly engagement, less so impact, represent a different way of conceiving of the public value of research and pointing up the role of the creative arts in contributing to it.
 OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013, pp99-103. http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/science-and-technology/oecd-science-technology-and-industry-scoreboard-2013_sti_scoreboard-2013-en#.WJQJccdOyHc
 “In June 2015, 61% of actively trading businesses in Australia had no employees, 28% had 1-4, 9% had 5-19, 2% had 20-199, and less than 1% had 200 or more.” Source - 8165.0 - Counts of Australian Businesses, including Entries and Exits, Jun 2011 to Jun 2015 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8165.0.
 The employment dynamics of Australian entrepreneurship, Office of the Chief Economist of Australia, p22. https://industry.gov.au/Office-of-the-Chief-Economist/Research-Papers/Documents/2015-Research-Paper-4-The-employment-dynamics-of-Australian-entrepreneurship.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_source=sendpress&utm_campaign
Dr Tim Cahill is Chief Data Scientist at The Conversation Media Group. He has spent his career working with universities, government, peak bodies, and other stakeholders in the Australian higher education sector. His work focuses on how data can be used as a tool for research evaluation, portfolio planning and policy development. As a consultant, he led work on behalf of ATSE on Research Engagement for Australia, and previously worked at the ARC as Director, Excellence in Research for Australia.
Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, Artistic Counsel of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and a member of the boards of both Currency House Press (editorial) and CHASS. He is the director of many award-winning theatre productions, and is a Chief Investigator on two ARC projects: AusStage, and Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture. He has written extensively in the areas of Australian theatre and Australian cultural policy. His next book “Australian Theatre after the New Wave” will be published by Brill later this year.