Dear Mr Robb
I write in response to your comments from 7 November this year, in which you criticised the funding awarded by the ARC to a number of Humanities and Social Sciences research projects. Your comments indicate a fundamental lack of understanding about the role and significance of humanist enquiry. While the sciences (and in particular the health sciences) can offer inspiring and meaningful research outcomes that can assist in prolonging life and ameliorating suffering, the end-game result of much scientific endeavour is neutrality. Thanks to medical advances life might go on, perhaps even without pain or illness, but is that really the height of our ambitions? Do we want a research culture in Australia in which mere continuation of existence is the highest research goal?
As a humanist I often find metaphors a useful way to describe and understand complex ideas, and I recently came across two excellent metaphors for communicating the role of the humanities and social sciences.
In the first you must imagine you look out the window to see a man run past. The sciences can explain many fascinating elements of that image. Physics can explain why the running man remains on the ground, and why the particular application of force by each foot results in the forward motion of running. Biology can explain the role of oxygen in his running, and nutritional science can teach us the role of the running man’s breakfast in feeding his muscles. Neuroscience can teach us how his unconscious brain controls those highly complex muscle movements, but none of this explains why.
Why is the man running? Is he running to or from? Should his running be copied – is he running from something I should also run from? Or is he running towards a loved one, recently returned from a long absence? Does running make him happy? This is the realm of the humanities, and this is the reason it is important. Health sciences can keep us alive, but the humanities can teach us why we might want to, and how to make the best out of our existence.
I promised a second metaphor, and you might be pleased to know it is a shorter one. [NB In the email to Mr Robb I wasn’t able to include the image, so I paraphrased it].
I write to you, Mr Robb, to entreat you to work towards a little more understanding of humanist enquiry and work. I could provide endless practical arguments in support of this entreaty, but I would rather address your intelligence than your back pocket.
A little time spent looking beyond mere grant application titles and synopses (which are after all written for a specific audience and purpose) would show how crucial, how infinitely necessary, a strong humanities and social sciences research sector is for the future happiness and prosperity of Australia. Let us aim for more than mere null continuation.
With regards, and high hopes
(Current MA by research candidate, dept. of English, Flinders University)