I was troubled by the Chief Scientist’s remarks last week…

On 24 February, there was a brief report in The Age (and The Canberra Times) about the Chief Scientist of Australia’s latest “occasional report” about the quality of Australian science, as measured by citation rate (Matthew Ovens, The Sadistician, has neatly demolished the idea that citation rate is a measure of research quality).

However, this post is not about the Chief Scientist’s report but about comments attributed to Prof Ian Chubb in The Age’s article about the report.

To be clear, the Chief Scientist’s report is about the sciences. The report assesses only the fields of:

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences
  • Energy
  • Engineering
  • Environmental Science
  • Immunology and Microbiology
  • Materials Science
  • Mathematics
  • Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Psychology
  • Veterinary

In The Age, after a paragraph about how 55% of Australian papers had citation rates below world average (which is how averages work) and after a digression about “a list of PhDs completed last year” apparently released by ANU and UC (about which more later), Ewa Pretowicz writes:

Professor Chubb said he did not want to see humanities research cut completely but funding priorities and criteria would have to be reassessed if the quality of scientific papers was to improve.

Hold. The. Phone.

The Chief Scientist’s report does not deal with Humanities research at all so it’s very curious that he should be turning his attention that way. Indeed, there’s not a lot of mention of the humanities generally on the Chief Scientist’s web site. None of the Chief Scientist’s reports have dealt with Humanities research in anything more than a passing fashion.

However, I’m assured that Prof Chubb has a deep respect for the humanities. In his recent speech to the National Press Club, he said:

I’d also argue that whatever we do as scientists has to be acceptable to the community as a whole – and that means that science is conducted with, and in the context of, work in the humanities, arts and social sciences. These disciplines offer much to help us understand and change our world, and without them the full benefits from science as we know it could be lost.

I’m not sure what to make of this, really. Does the Chief Scientist have a policy position that humanities research funding should be cut to bolster science funding? Do current funding priorities direct funding away from the sciences? Could future priorities be far more science, or STEM, focussed?

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One thought on “I was troubled by the Chief Scientist’s remarks last week…

  1. Pingback: How much research funding do the humanities get? | Not Easily Obvious

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