Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ron Smith: Pornography and the public interest

Media stories during the last week, about proposed Auckland University research into the place of pornography in society, raise much wider issues than the deliberate deception involved in the Marsden Fund reporting of this issue. Apart from the obvious questions about the importance of this particular investigation and others in the recently issued Marsden list, there is a general question about the desirability of awarding more than fifty million dollars to public institutions (largely universities), that are already in receipt of public funds, and about how the decisions to allocate these funds are made.

Clearly, there are areas of research where specialised equipment and technical expertise that are not already available may be required before investigations can be made, but this does not seem to apply in many of the cases, including the case in point: ‘Public engagement towards a more inclusive and equitable society’, which is the code for the proposed pornography investigation. It seems perfectly appropriate for social scientists in one of our universities to research the place of pornography in our society, without the need of an anodyne title. What is not clear is why staff employed full-time at a university, who anyway have an obligation to spend a significant proportion of their time in research, should be awarded $790,000 to do it. Of course, in general terms, we do know what Marsden money is awarded for in this sort of case. It is to free a particular researcher (or researchers) by employing someone else to do their teaching, and/or, to appoint others persons to contribute to the research. In the specific case, it seems that an ‘interactive website’ and an ‘art exhibition’ are also envisaged.

But the sums involved in these cases are generally so large that it does raise a question about priorities for public funding and about how the decisions to support a particular project and not another, are determined. For example, I note that Professor Boyd, of the same university (Auckland) was awarded $687,000 to write a biography of the Philosopher, Karl Popper. Certainly, Popper made a very considerable contribution to political philosophy and the philosophy of science, as well as being a refugee from Nazi persecution. There thus may be a need for a new biography to add to the autobiography and short biographies that are already in existence, and there is also a small New Zealand connection (he was on the staff of Canterbury University). However, it is not clear why this project should have been preferred over (in the same genre) a biography of Sir Roger Douglas. Douglas is, of course, a very divisive figure in New Zealand politics but there surely can be few persons in recent New Zealand political history who have had a greater influence on the development of public policy, and there is no biographical material on him at all. The Douglas biography was the subject of a Marsden application by a Waikato University historian who had recently published a very well reviewed biography of Sir Geoffrey Palmer. Can it be that the political prejudices of those making the decision swamped any objective consideration of the merits of the proposal? We don’t know, because those who make these decisions are not required to provide their reasons.

Professor Ackerley’s proposal, ‘‘The machinery of transcendence’: Unattended moments in the Modernist tradition’, is different again. Here it looks as if it might cost us $822,000 to find out what that title means! More seriously, we should be questioning why speculation of this sort ought to be supported out of the public purse, beyond what the state already pays to provide the professor with a salary, and an office and support facilities. The same question applies to ‘Dalits in the history of Partition in eastern India’. No doubt Professor Bandyopadhyay is a well-published author and will have something interesting to say about his topic but, again, it is not clear why that particular study should be favoured (to the extent of $659,726) over the research interests of the generality of New Zealand scholars. The same point might be made in relation to ‘Are old males still good males and can females tell the difference?’, ‘The agricultural foundations of Predynastic Egypt: climate change and opportunism in the Fayum’, or ‘The role of sport in male dominated leadership cultures’. As I have argued elsewhere, the whole notion of assessing the value of academic research is very problematic. Apart from manifestly special cases, this sort of speculative effort ought to be supported in a general, non-judgemental way and not through a process of picking winners. University staff would then receive modest on-going support for their research activities, without prejudging its value. What would not be done is to pay junior, less-experienced persons to teach the classes of senior academics, whilst the latter concentrate on their important research. This is to short-change the students and undervalue the teaching process.

There is another matter that stares out from the list of Marsden grantees and that is the marked differences between the number of those favoured in the various universities. Otago comes out on top with 26 grants. Auckland has 20 and Victoria (Wellington) 11. The rear is brought up with Massey 7, Canterbury 6, and Waikato 3. What are we to make of this? Almost all our top scholars are at Otago, Auckland and Victoria? Or, is there nobody in the bottom three with an interest in (say), ‘The Goroka fresh food market, Papua New Guinea’ (Dr Busse, Auckland, $729,000), or Dalits, or Predynastic Egypt? Alternatively, it may be that these less favoured universities need to get their hands more determinedly on the levers of power.

If we are to continue with Marsden Awards we need a more transparent and equitable process. On the other hand, there may be strong reasons to end the system altogether; in fact, more than fifty million of them!


Kiwiwit said...

The waste of sparse scientific research funding on this sort of garbage is a significant reason why we are unable to build innovative, economically valuable, businesses in this country. If we continue to support (say) basket weaving over robotics, NZ will continue to be a basket case.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kiwiwit, and 50 mil would fund a hell of a lot of basic Plumbing and electrical apprentices.

Time is well past for this fancy rubbish that benefits staving uneducated Kiwis not one brass scruple (using the historical brass gold weight meaning).

Anonymous said...

They should pay someone to do a study on how much money the government wastes ...

KP said...

I'm sure their value would be obvious if they had to raise the money themselves in the private sector. Using taxation that is removed from unwilling subjects by coercion means their works (and probably their lives) are worthless.

However there is no chance of change until politicians are once again swinging from lamp posts.

Evan said...

How many patients in need of cancer operations would this fund. Good reason for the govt to cut back another million from University funding.

Richard McGrath said...

Shane Jones may be able to give some fresh and interesting perspectives to the team researching pornography.