Last year, government estimates revealed that the former Education Minister Simon Birmingham blocked 11 research grants—six Discovery grants worth a total of $1.4m, three Early Career grants (worth $1.1m) and two Future Fellowships (worth $1.7m)—within the humanities, totalling a loss of over $4 million to the field.

The research the funds were intended for would have included research into the history of men’s dress and fashion, ‘beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms’, and ‘post-orientalist arts in the Strait of Gibraltar’. This funding had already been approved in a peer-reviewed process before being blocked.

Labor senator Kim Carr revealed this finding at the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee Estimates hearing. Carr responded to this knowledge by stating that Birmingham was appealing to “knuckle-dragging, right-wing philistines”.

Birmingham had also blocked $1 million awarded in November last year for early career research, in topics such as legal secularism in Australia and another titled ‘Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist’. In June this year, two other grants blocked were: ‘The music of nature and the nature of music’, and ‘Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity’.

The Universities that were to receive these grants included the Australian Catholic University, the Australian National University, and the Sydney, Melbourne, New South Wales and Monash universities.

In a statement, the Australia Academy of the Humanities expressed “shock and anger”, with its President Professor Joy Damousi stating that, “political interference of this kind undermines confidence and trust in that system.

“This interference damages Australia’s reputation on the world stage. Withdrawing funding by stealth threatens the survival of a strong humanities teaching and research sector, something no democratic society can do without.

“This interference is entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry.”

The statement concluded with the Academy calling on the Morrison Government to restore the denied funding, a decision which the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has also called for.

The NTEU called it a crisis of academic freedom. NTEU President Dr Alison Barnes stated that the Union and its members “expect the Minister to uphold the principles and to not directly interfere in the allocation of research grants.

“There was no transparency around these decisions. Applicants were not notified that their grants successfully navigated and found their way to the top of the extremely tough ARC vetting process, only to be rejected at the last hurdle by the Minister. No reasons for rejecting the grants were provided.”

The NTEU suspects that Birmingham’s decisions may have been based on “perceptions of how his colleagues or conservative commentators might react to these announcements”.

They also call for legislation that, in the case of a rejected grant, the applicants are notified and the true reasons for rejection are made public.

“His decision also totally disrespects the enormous amount of time researchers dedicate to writing research grant proposals, of which only about one in five succeed, not to mentions the tens of thousands of hours donated by participants on ARC expert panels to assess these grants.”

The bigger problem with defunding the humanities

In the above instance, it is obvious that the personal biases of one minister have overruled the judgement of the academic communities which found the research grants worth awarding. Not only is this an abhorrent abuse of power, but it also shows that, unlike other domains of research such as science and business, the humanities is seen by many as not being as apparently beneficial at face-value.

However, despite the value of the humanities being overlooked, this does not mean that there is no value in pursuing subjects such as Soviet cinema and post-orientalist arts.

The use and applicability of these and other subjects of humanities research to our current power and economic structures are not immediately visible to those outside the field, and if the financial profitability or practicality of any course is to be the sole measure of its worth to academia, then there are many fields alongside the humanities which would have their funding cut.

Author Adam Ruben elaborates on this in a Science article titled, ‘Scientists should defend, not defund, the humanities’:

“‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ sonnets would begin. ‘No, I shall not, for I must go argue with a collaborator about first authorship. Please compare thyself to a summer’s day, recalling that if p > 0.05, thou art not significantly comparable to a summer’s day, and submit your analysis to one of my graduate students for grading.’”

All joking aside, the humanities are a valuable contribution to our everyday lives, working in ways which may not be visible at first glance to those unfamiliar with the breadth of our society that arts are responsible in creating. The green spaces and architectural feats of today’s metropolitan scenes are informed by centuries of design and artistic influence; the cinema, theatre, libraries, sculptures and art pieces that perch between corporate spaces make modern life in these spaces somewhat liveable. But more than anything, study of the arts and humanities instils within its students a method of critical thinking and analysis that differs from scientific methods and data analyses in very crucial ways.

Only through the consideration of the social impacts of certain cultural moments can we better understand things like the distribution of power, cultural anxieties, fears and transformations. In short, the arts are crucial to understanding our society.