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Dollar drought puts the bite on clever country

By Richard Eckersley - posted Wednesday, 7 March 2007


I had hoped to be beginning an Australian Research Council (ARC) fellowship about now. It would have given me a reasonable, secure income for five years. But it was not to be.

It was always a long shot because I am not a career academic and have an unorthodox approach to research. Given this, my proposal, “National progress and population health: a transdisciplinary approach to improving wellbeing”, did pretty well. My assessment scores suggest I was in the top few per cent of unsuccessful applicants, doing best for the two criteria of national benefit and track record and capability.

Two of my assessors strongly endorsed the proposal. One described it as “innovative, exciting, intellectually sound and much needed”; the other said it was “important and interesting”, and “addresses a quite fundamental problem for society”. The third assessor was more sceptical, but admitted to not having “encountered this perspective before”. The scope and nature of the proposal meant that it rested heavily on my track record; all three assessors acknowledged this was “impressive” and “strong”.

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My research involves drawing together existing knowledge from different disciplines to improve our understanding of the world, unlike the usual, empirical approach of creating new knowledge within disciplinary frameworks to do this. I have applied this approach in several areas, including: young people’s wellbeing; the social sources of health and happiness; measures of national progress; Australians’ expected and preferred futures for their country; and sustainable development.

I’m a co-author of a national measure of wellbeing, the first of its kind in the world, and of the Australian wellbeing manifesto. My work on progress helped to stimulate to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ report series, Measures of Australia’s Progress, and the Australia Institute’s Genuine Progress Indicator for Australia. My environmental work boosted government interest in reforestation and led directly to green jobs programs such as LEAP (Labor) and Green Corps (Coalition).

In just the past year, I published in the International Journal of Epidemiology a paper, “Is modern Western culture a health hazard?”, which argued that cultural factors such as materialism and individualism had been largely ignored in research into the social determinants of health; helped the New Economics Foundation in London with a report, commissioned by the UK Government, on a wellbeing perspective on sustainability; and contributed a chapter on culture to what is being promoted as the first book on the macrosocial determinants of population health, to be published in the US this year (I am one of just a handful of non-American contributors).

The main problem with the ARC, then, is not the assessment process (although it has its faults), but the money. Overall, only 20 per cent of proposals were funded; for fellowships, the figure was 15 per cent. So I am now unemployed - or, more accurately, self-employed (as I have been for the year-long ARC assessment).

Two years ago, I attended an ANU staff meeting at which the Vice-Chancellor, Ian Chubb, spoke about the pressures on the university, acknowledged as one of the best in the world. He warned the university’s budget was tight and would get tighter in the years ahead. I asked Chubb about the danger that universities were developing a two-tier academic structure: established, mainly older, researchers on well-paid, tenured or long-term appointments; and early and mid-career researchers, poorly paid, on short-term, often part-time, contracts. He agreed this was a risk.

Personally, I don’t mind that much. I’ll manage. I’m established enough to make a living out of consultancies and writing and speaking fees (but earning only a fraction of the money I could probably make elsewhere). My concern is what this situation means for younger researchers and for the nation’s future. Conversations with colleagues reveal growing frustration and resentment over the constant uncertainty, the unrelenting struggle for funding (which often involves cobbling together money from a range of sources), and the discouraging odds of success (as illustrated by the ARC grants).

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Several are giving research away, or thinking of it. One student confided to a colleague that she wondered why she was bothering with a PhD. Is it any wonder that we are seeing, as reported in the media in recent weeks, a continuing drift of students away from science, and the low tertiary entrance scores for science subjects?

My experience is with people working in social, health and environmental research; those in more commercially exploitable areas might be doing better. Without public-interest research we simply would not understand (in some cases, would not even be aware of) some of the greatest challenges facing Australia and the world, including climate change, species extinctions, resource depletion, possible disease pandemics, the crisis in mental health, the origins of global terrorism, and so forth. And unless we understand these things, we cannot know what to do about them.

On the evening of the ANU staff meeting, I watched the Treasurer, Peter Costello, give his 2005 budget speech. The picture he painted was of a country awash with money, the public purse bursting, with not a cloud on the economic horizon. It was hard to reconcile this view with what I’d heard from the Vice-Chancellor a few hours earlier.

Meeting the challenges and hazards of the 21st century goes beyond government and policy responses. It will require a profound shift in our national vision, in our worldview, priorities and values. But there can be no excuse for the wilful political neglect and erosion of our capacity to understand and respond to the events and developments that will shape our future quality of life.

Australians will one day look back on these times and regret that we squandered our opportunities on a consumption binge, instead of investing it in the physical, social and human capital needed to prepare us for the jolts and jars ahead and to enable us to thrive in a very different world.

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First published in The Canberra Times on February 5, 2007.



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About the Author

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher. His work explores progress and wellbeing.

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