Two cheers for the pub test of academic research

Academics should not sneer at Simon Birmingham’s appeal to what ‘most Australians’ would think about projects, says Hannah Forsyth

December 13, 2018
Source: iStock/william87

When it was revealed recently that Australia’s former education minister, Simon Birmingham, vetoed a selection of 2017 Australian Research Council grants in the humanities, academics feared that he was advocating a “pub test” of what counted as worthwhile research.

Quoting the title of one vetoed project, Birmingham tweeted that “most Australians” would not want to fund such work. Outraged scholars, alongside the opposition Labor Party, ridiculed the notion that ordinary punters had any expertise to identify a worthwhile research project. But I think we need to reconsider this stance.

The pub test was shrewdly invoked in Birmingham’s tweet in a way that hooked into a wider culture wars broadside from right-leaning commentators: that humanities and social science research funding is there merely to prop up the lifestyles of a left-leaning intellectual elite. Those on the right have glibly ridiculed project titles since the 1980s, after all.

The scholarly community has done a good job of refuting their claims about whether those projects represent value for the public, demonstrating why humanities research matters. But we should be doing so not only in traditional outlets (such as this one), but also at the pub.

Let’s be honest: academics can be a teensy bit arrogant. It is perhaps an understandable flaw. We have studied for what seems like forever, often making many sacrifices to do so. We have built up real expertise, often at considerable personal cost. But when we ridicule the pub test, we risk making a class-based claim to public funding that is not only unhelpful to our cause, but also separates our work from communities in a way that is detrimental to the research itself.

We ought to know better. How many Foucauldian studies of power, knowledge and institutions have humanities and social science scholars produced since the 1980s? All that analysis applies to us, too.

Of course, it also applies to the pub, and it is no accident that the pub is the metaphor here. It is not the “knitting circle test”, is it? Or the Auburn soccer club test? Or the Country Women’s Association test. Yes, many types of people go to pubs these days, but history imprints these establishments with strong associations with white working-class blokes. The “pub test” is part of a renewed push, evident throughout international politics, to restore white male supremacy to the public conversation.

This is not a good reason to disdain it, though. We should be prepared to discuss our research with people everywhere – in the pub certainly, but also in all the other places that “real people” gather. Our research should be discussed with communities and more often grounded in connection to them.

Considerable progress has been made on this score. A growing amount of humanities and social science research is grounded in deep engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, worker organisations, lobby groups, industries and educational bodies. Researchers have been instrumental in establishing organisations, for example, that support people who grew up in care.

We do not want all research to be embedded in communities, however. Several reasons underpin this. One is the need for independence: over-reliance on close relationships with community groups is likely to result in research that confirms society’s most powerful structures and organisations.

And as others have noted, curiosity-driven research is also important, contributing to a healthy academic ecosystem that, over time, helps Australians to live longer, better and more prosperous lives.

So while I support the pub test, I am not suggesting that voting on research project titles is a reasonable way to allocate public funds. That would be like handing around the names of medical equipment and asking random people to prioritise their funding in our hospitals.

The committees that undertake the thankless task of reading project descriptions and assessor reports, ranking them and figuring out the best way of getting excellent research for the money available, are performing something no pub test could do – even if the pub was that day packed with Nobel laureates. But we academics could do with being a little more humble. We should take seriously the views of “real people” – in all their wondrous diversity.

Hannah Forsyth is lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic University.


Print headline: Pub test? I’ll drink to that

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Reader's comments (2)

"The “pub test” is part of a renewed push, evident throughout international politics, to restore white male supremacy to the public conversation" It's rather more the reality that it is the taxes paid by those 'in the pub' who are paying for the research to be conducted.
Thank you for your comment. I agree completely that researchers should love the pub test because, among other reasons, '...the taxes paid by those 'in the pub' who are paying for the research to be conducted'. But we must also be conscious of why it is the pub, not the knitting club, that is often invoked. Which is what the article says. Yours, Hannah