In early April The University of Western Australia announced it had secured $4 million in Federal Government funding to establish an Australia Consensus Centre to undertake detailed economic cost benefit analysis into many of Australia’s, and the world’s, biggest challenges.
The Centre is unique in that it’s to deliver robust, evidence-based knowledge and advice to the Australian Government on potential policy reforms and other interventions that will deliver the smartest, most cost-effective solutions in areas ranging from poverty, social justice and food sustainability. Many of these issues will form the basis of the United Nation's post 2015 Development Goals.
Constructively contributing to this agenda should be the domain of a world leading university such as UWA.
The University of Western Australia embraced the opportunity to host the Centre as we, a credible and influential academic institution, have a duty to contribute to the global response by actively encouraging the exploration of new ideas, challenging established thinking, and posing the difficult "what if" questions.
This sentiment is captured in UWA’s values which espouse the importance of academic freedom to encourage staff and students to engage in the open exchange of ideas and thought; and fostering the values of openness, honesty, tolerance, fairness, trust and responsibility.
However, the creation of the Australia Consensus Centre attracted a mixed reaction from staff, students and the general public. The scale of the strong and passionate emotional reaction was one that the University did not predict.
Over the past few weeks, I have met and talked to staff, students and members of the public to hear their views, and to explain how the centre will operate within the University, the type of economic analysis it will undertake, and to correct many mistruths and misunderstandings about the centre.
I have stated many times that it is not a centre to study climate change, that the University was not providing any direct funding to the Centre, and that that Bjorn Lomborg would not be involved in its day-to-day operations.
During this time, I have carefully considered several key questions to help better understand the views, opinions and emotions expressed during the debate.
I asked myself:
Is it appropriate for UWA to house a centre that will undertake economic cost benefit analysis to help governments evaluate the most effective ways to address many of the world’s challenges?
Without a doubt. An examination of the United Nation’s post 2015 development goals, which include halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of AIDS, and providing universal primary education is evidence of the importance of testing our thinking about the best possible solution.
Is it appropriate for the Australia Consensus Centre to be funded by the Federal Government through a direct grant?
Again the answer is yes as many well-respected research centres across the country are funded this way including the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU, the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University, and our own Perth USAsia Centre.
Is it appropriate for Doctor Bjorn Lomborg to be associated with UWA?
I understand there are strong views on this issue. However, I believe that a man who has worked with many Nobel Laureate economists, has been named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people, and has published with Cambridge University Press meets the criteria of being made an Adjunct Professor – an honorary position that carries no salary.
Despite all this, there remains strong opposition to the Centre. Whilst I respect the right of staff to express their views on this matter, as all universities should be places for open and honest sharing and discussion of ideas, in this case, it has placed the University in a difficult position.
Therefore, it is with great regret and disappointment that I have formed the view that the events of the past few weeks places the Centre in an untenable position as it lacks the support needed across the University and the broader academic community to meet its contractual obligations and deliver value for money for Australian taxpayers.
By its very nature a centre of this sort requires co-operation of a wide range of people across many fields.
The work of the Australia Consensus Centre is important to Australia’s future by engaging in important discussion and economic analysis about how we ensure future generations are better off than those that came before them. Unfortunately, that work cannot happen here.
I have today spoken to the Federal Government and Bjorn Lomborg advising them of the barriers that currently exist to the creation of the Centre and the University’s decision to cancel the contract and return the money to the government.