In academia we are used to the attacks of the right wing on our research as part of their ongoing culture war. The selective quoting of grant application titles and research findings in an attempt to belittle, discredit or otherwise mock the research undertaken in Australia appears to be a national sport, with the finals season around the time of Australian Research Council (ARC) grant announcements. Natasha Bita’s piece “Taxpayer dollars wasted on ‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research” is illustrative of this approach (but also see Ben Eltham’s take-down).

Sadly, The Guardian has now joined these attacks, including emulating the failure to get a comment or clarification from the researcher herself. At least our ABC did give the researcher a chance to defend herself. The outrage is that the researcher wants to look at the experiences of the male partners of endometriosis sufferers regarding sex. Perhaps if this was millions of dollars in funding a discussion would be warranted — the biases of and within science are well established when it comes to gender. However, this is a small study being undertaken by a master’s student — effectively just research training for her (but it is hoped with some outcomes that help).

The more disturbing aspect of the attack is the implications it has for research.

By the metric being applied here can researchers only ever look at the primary sufferer? Can we never investigate the impact a disease or problem has on those around them? A research project I was involved with focused on the carers of terminal cancer patients. We only looked at the carers’ experiences, not the cancer sufferers’, and our study gave voice to them and also contributed to better support services for carers – surely a good thing overall? Research that looks at the experiences of those around a patient can and does deliver real assistance. Yes, we need to research the disease, but we must also look at the social effects it has.

We academics are a little touchy when it comes to censoring research. In the mid-2000s, the then minister for higher education, Brendan Nelson, vetoed 11 ARC-approved research projects. The studies rejected had been rigorously reviewed for their worth by experts (with ARC success at around 20%) — yet they didn’t “fit” the world view of the government of the time. The last thing we need is trial by (social) media, emboldening further anti-knowledge interventions from non-experts. The absurdity of the attacks launched against scientists and institutions such as the CSIRO and NASA by some politicians illustrate this “post-truth” chicanery.

The research done by academics is scrutinised by colleagues, supervisors (in the case of master’s and PhD students), ethics committees, journal editors and reviewers, and subsequently by the research and practice community at large. Attempting to discredit work before there are any results, on the basis of the question being addressed, fits that anti-intellectualist pastime beloved of too many in Australia.

The fascinating thing in this imbroglio is the Twitter pile-on, matched by mainstream coverage, creating a storm utterly out of proportion to the supposed original “sin”. The Twitter pile is endemic of the knee-jerk tribal responses we now engage in, where a favourite or re-tweet is weaponised. There’s certainly an academic study in that — if social media land would allow it. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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