When Simon Birmingham was education minister he overrode the peer-review system of the Australian Research Council (ARC) to deny $4.2 million in funding for projects which had been recommended for funding by the ARC. It seems that Birmingham believes he has a better understanding of what is worthwhile research than all the expertise available to review ARC grant requests. I have reviewed several grant requests for Australian and overseas research grant organisations because I have expertise in a particular field. It therefore makes me wonder how a person like Birmingham could possibly pass an opinion on their worth given his ignorance of the subject. Birmingham has suggested that most Australian taxpayers would ‘prefer their funding to be directed to other research.’1 Why he believes he is the arbiter of what the Australian people want is something that he neglected to explain.
While some of the projects rejected by Birmingham are on subjects for which I do not understand the significance, let alone the topic, I’d never presume that because of my ignorance, my opinion was more worthy than people who actually know what they are doing. This is the system Birmingham seem to operate under: his ignorance is just as valid as others’ knowledge.
Now Birmingham is no longer Education Minister; another person has that portfolio. Unfortunately, it is the less, um, ‘inspiring’ Dan Tehan. So far, Tehan has not been accused of the sort of interference admitted by Birmingham. However, if someone like Andrew Hastie had been given the Education portfolio, what would happen? He has repeatedly refused to give his ‘views’ on creationism2, so it makes you wonder what he would do if confronted with an ARC grant approval dealing with the evolution of a particular group of organisms or with the genetic mechanisms of evolution. Would he insist that his religious beliefs override the ARC approval process?
In one of the replies to questions from journalists about creationism, “people are sick of this crap … People are sick of [you] trying to drag petty issues into public policy issues”. I’d venture that this is not a petty issue, and I’d suggest that what many people are in fact sick of, is religious people telling them what they can and cannot do, based on bizarre medieval attitudes and beliefs.
This sort of anti-intellectualism is rife in this government. They do not accept the results of research, and they believe they have a right to determine what is studied. This is simply incipient Lysenkoism, a pseudoscientific campaign that started in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. That campaign was named after Trofim Lysenko, and supported by Stalin, and was based on a Lamarckian belief which severely damaged the study of genetics and science-based agriculture in the Soviet Union. Over 3,000 biologists were sacked, imprisoned or executed as part of the campaign3. In Australia, the government could not get away with doing this to scientists or other researchers, so they just cut funding instead4,5. It is a most effective way of telling researchers to shut up, or lose their jobs.