The closing of the Australian mind

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty | James Paterson
Spectator Australia 11th January, 2012

It has long been the lament of academics that their self-evidently brilliant ideas and advice are seldom heeded in the ‘real' world. Nowhere is this disappointment more evident than in the field of social sciences, particularly political science and public policy.

One recent illustration of academics' frustration with their failure to influence public policy was the launch of The Conversation, a website which describes itself as ‘an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector'. Headed by former Age editor Andrew Jaspan, the website is primarily resourced by the Group of Eight elite Australian universities.

Evidently, it is well-funded. Besides Australia's major universities, it also enjoys support from corporate partners, the CSIRO, the Federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, and the Victorian Department of Business and Innovation. This support appears to allow it to employ dozens of staff, including editors - and in some cases, deputy editors - for each of the website's ‘sections' (‘Science + Technology', ‘Politics + Society', ‘Environment + Energy' and so on).

The Conversation was launched explicitly to address the ‘problem', as described by University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis, that universities are not successful at communicating their messages to the public; as if the reason academics are unable to influence public debate is because they lack a highbrow version of News Limited's opinion website, The Punch.

As the site's charter admits, it hopes to ‘give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas', and aims to work for the advancement of the ‘public good'. It also promises to be ‘editorially independent', provide ‘diverse' content and be ‘free of commercial or political bias'. Whether it achieves this is open to question.

Professor Judith Sloan, one academic who can boast a tangible impact on policy and public debate, is unconvinced: ‘This site strikes me as emblematic of all that is wrong with Australian universities. Crammed with puerile, naïve, left-wing tosh, the contributing academics really have no idea when it comes to serious public policy contributions.'

Indeed, if you believe that diversity should extend to the ideological realm, The Conversation is hardly fulfilling its charter. Take a recent sampling from its ‘Environment + Energy' section: one article labels the governments' carbon tax as ‘profoundly inadequate' because it doesn't go far enough, another argues that the climate debate focuses far too much on ‘the risks to Australia's economic prosperity', and a piece cheerily points out that businesses could become more ‘efficient' thanks to the carbon tax. Others suggest that ‘one small thing you can do for the environment' is to ‘be inspired', and yet another argues that scientists have a duty to speak out against policies such as the Victorian government's decision to allow grazing in Alpine national parks.

On a brighter note, one article suggested that Christopher Monckton should not be prevented from speaking at a university, but not before comparing climate sceptics to ‘Holocaust deniers, supporters of paedophilia, critics of vaccination [and] advocates of racial inequality'. The website also proudly featured ‘Monckton watch' on its homepage, a section dedicated to criticising the British climate sceptic during his visit to Australia.

Every article that appears on the website is accompanied by a disclosure statement that lists any possible conflicts of interest the academic author may have. Obviously, this is part of The Conversation's efforts to elevate itself above commercial media and demonstrate the rigorousness of its content.

But many of these articles, supposedly ‘curated' by The Conversation's team of professional journalists, are littered with political talking points like ‘clean energy future', a phrase that features in headlines and introductory paragraphs of numerous articles on the website, and - coincidentally, of course - in the Gillard government's publicly-funded advertising campaign in support of its carbon tax package. This represents either willful participation in the government's propaganda campaign or, more charitably, sloppy editing standards, because neutral language would be both more accurate and more illuminating.

Moreover, one way that academic writing distinguishes itself from opinion journalism is that it is referenced and peer-reviewed. Yet the articles that appear on The Conversation are rarely footnoted and only occasionally contain links to other articles which back up their claims. Neither are articles on The Conversation peer-reviewed, which is ironic considering many articles published on the website assail climate sceptics for not submitting their work to this process.

Conservative or even vaguely centreright voices appear extremely rarely on the site. To be fair, that is not totally the fault of the editors: the reality is that academia is substantially dominated by the Left, and paeans to renewable energy are probably easier to source than robust critiques of big government. But herein lies the problem. One of the reasons academic ideas are not taken seriously in the political world is the perception that they come solely from one end of the ideological spectrum.

In this light it hardly seems surprising that academics fail to make their mark on public policy debates. The dominance of the Left on campus may be gratifying for those who hope to change society by influencing the young, but it actually contributes to their exclusion from the public policy process. And in order to actually influence public debate, you need ideas that are relevant, achievable and have some semblance of community support. Australian academics are not just one flashy website away from reshaping the nation according to their vision. To achieve that, they require nothing less than a fundamental cultural revolution. Until then, others will hold sway. Judging by their contributions to date, that might not be a bad thing.