Australia: Social Sciences Robbed of “Usefulness”

Another page to add to the book of “useful” research, not much different from what has already been talked about on this blog in terms of “useful anthropology.” This item comes from the Sydney Morning Herald for 19 May, 2008, in an article by Harriet Alexander titled “Social sciences robbed of usefulness“:

THE mantra “publish or perish” is deterring academics from research that would contribute to government policy, a report from a humanities group says.

Problems such as Aboriginal welfare and housing affordability would be best tackled by a combination of specialists, but universities and government funding were arranged to discourage collaboration between different disciplines, the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences says in a paper to be released in Canberra tomorrow.

In a report titled Rigour And Relevance, John H. Howard of the Australian Council for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences states in an executive summary:

Australia needs to encourage a new form of research that contributes directly to the formulation of policy in government. Such research is initiated by the end user rather than the researcher. It is characterised by being strategically driven, problem oriented and cross-disciplinary.

It is becoming increasingly necessary to draw on knowledge from many disciplines in meeting the challenges and opportunities of the modern economy and society. Scientific or technological research, in particular, benefits from the inclusion of complementary work in the social sciences and humanities. We need to think about ways the practice of interdisciplinary research can be encouraged and facilitated.

(see also the media release)

The report notes that academic institutions hire disciplinary specialists, and states that in many institutions there is “suspicion and resentment if a specialist in one area shows interest in another specialist area.”

The Council wants to see more academics working as consultants, applying their knowledge to solve actually existing problems, instead of the current drive to research what is “new” and to seek more research grants for such purposes. In addition, it wants to see more interdisciplinary research being fostered by academic institutions.

While the President of the Council argued that academic institutions divide knowledge into disciplines, it’s important for us to note that this is not universally true, and is especially not the case of Australian anthropology, where only a tiny minority of anthropology programs actually exist as separate departments, most having been folded into “schools” that amalgamate a number of fields. In my case, I obtained a Ph.D. in a department of anthropology that no longer exists as such.

Having said that, in terms of research funding, the Council President argues, in the SMH article, that “it’s hard to get funding for projects that span disciplines.”