I have been a humanities researcher now for 38 years.
For most of them, the costs of research and the distribution of research funding have been regular items of public discussion; and humanities research – literature, languages, philosophy, gender theory, history – has been subjected to particularly stringent and suspicious queries.
Tellingly, a recent article in Quadrant suggested that the current system of funding through ARC grants breeds an academic culture of mendicancy and waste, and that research – particularly humanities research – should be ‘self-funded’ – paid for by individual academics rather than through public money.
Commendably, UWA’s leadership has supported and sustained many humanities research initiatives, not least the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of the Emotions (CHE). But Australian Arts Faculties generally are often seen as lagging behind the research successes of other disciplines.
Let’s be clear; an ideal research funding scheme is almost certainly unattainable, primarily because good research (as anyone who does it knows) can take almost infinite amounts of time, and hence money.
No one supposes the ARC is a magical utopian body, able to give all good researchers exactly the funds they need. But over the past two decades ARC-distributed grants have enabled many humanities researchers to do the field trips and archival research required, to build up research resources, to moderate the crushing teaching loads that prevent so many young researchers from producing their best research. Why should this seem so wrong to some critics?
Probably for two main ‘reasons’; first, our research is seen as too expensive in comparison with other, allegedly more laudable, government spending programs, such as pensions, or mental health. (These charges have actually been levied against CHE). This belief in turn apparently stems from the conviction that humanities research has no public benefit; that it consists merely of individual researchers following idiosyncratic fancies, of no wider interest or use.
Research, to some critics, apparently has only two justifications. Either it must produce quick financial return (for some!) through invention of saleable widgets; or, through medical research, it must produce health.
At first sight, humanities might seem to fail both criteria. Actually, that’s not true.
Money can be made out of many things besides gadgets. I once checked what tourism contributed to the economy of York, UK, to be told that to the best of their calculations, tourism added around £8 million pounds annually to York’s economy. Let’s face it. Tourists don’t visit northern England for sunny beaches or silicon valleys. They go to York to see the Jorvik Viking Museum, the Early Music Festival, or the nearby Bronte country. All these would either not exist or would make dull spectacles without pre-existing humanities research. Even in Australia, cultural and heritage tourism bring in big dollars.
But do we want to justify humanities research purely in dollar terms? Surely there are other, maybe even greater, benefits. Just as medical research (which, as a cancer survivor twice over, I support unstintingly!) enhances physical well-being, humanities research sustains our cultural and social well-being.
Would we really be healthier, richer, more culturally sustained, if we knew nothing about Shakespeare, and never turned his plays into popular films? How can performing music help old and young to strengthen community ties, build self-confidence, and maintain mental alertness, if we know nothing about it? How are we to relate properly to our Asian neighbours if we don’t research and understand not just their languages, but their cultures? Can any society really function well, understand its identity, and make good decisions for its future, without a knowledge of its own past? Surely not.
These are only some of the benefits of humanities research. They may be financially incalculable, but they are not less real, or less powerful for the public good. What price humanities research? Whatever it is, it’s lower than the price of going without it.
Published in UWA News, 12 November 2012