Vice-Chancellor reflects on research consultation

Professor Colin Stirling has been announced as the next Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University
Professor Colin Stirling

Flinders Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling says he has been pleased by the level and tenor of the debate within Flinders regarding the possibility of collaboration with the Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC).

“As I have previously indicated, discussions have been held that have led to a group of colleagues considering a bid to the Department of Education for research funds to pursue a collaborative endeavour. No such bid has yet been made and the nature and structure of any such bid has yet to be decided,” Professor Stirling said.

“In the meantime, I have received a number of emails and spoken with many staff and students about the matter. I also attended the recent ‘Bjorn Free’ rally on campus where I listened to the debate and also took the opportunity to chat to a number of those present afterwards.

“Of the communications received, some have been highly supportive of a collaborative link with the CCC, but many more have expressed concerns on a range of issues. I have read all of these, and have listened closely in conversations with staff and students, and it is very clear to me that the concerns being expressed are genuine and heartfelt.

“Some of the concerns raised resonate with me and I intend to pass these on to those colleagues considering making a proposal to the Department.

“However, there are two recurring themes in the commentary with which I cannot agree.

“The first suggests that I, as Vice-Chancellor, should prevent Flinders academics from bidding to the Federal Government for research funds to pursue a research topic within their field of expertise. This is something that I should not and will not do. Were this precedent to be set then where would it lead, and what research topic would be next on the list to be disavowed?

“The second is that I should prohibit academic colleagues from any form of collaboration with Bjorn Lomborg. Once again, this is something that I cannot, should not and will not do. The world, and indeed academia, is replete with outspoken contrarians and controversial figures. We can each form our own views of such individuals but must respect the rights of our colleagues to decide with whom they choose to collaborate. So, while preventing colleagues from collaborating with Bjorn Lomborg might prove popular with some, it would be wrong. Which other controversial thinker would be next to be added to the prohibited list? This is not how the academy works. The role of the academy is not to suppress or evade controversial issues; rather we must tackle them directly through critical analysis, rigorous debate and thought leadership.

“These issues cut to the heart of the principle of academic freedom that is fundamental to the very nature of the academy and to what it means to be a University.

“Indeed, this principle is so fundamental that it cannot be compromised. Should our colleagues decide to bid to the Department then I will defend their right to do so.

“I will, of course, counsel them on the issues raised through the consultation, in an effort to improve the structure of any future proposal. One important area for me is that any bid ought to focus on research to be done at Flinders University by Flinders academics. The integrity of such research would then be beyond reproach, thereby satisfying the single most important concern raised during the consultation. Indeed I am confident that Flinders academics making any sort of external funding bid for research funding would insist on the same academic independence, rigour and integrity that characterises our institution.

“Some have suggested that considering an academic collaboration with the CCC is a risk to Flinders’ reputation. Whatever risk we might face from a successful bid, I believe there would be a greater risk to our reputation if we were to abandon the tenets of academic freedom.

“Given the level of interest in this issue, I undertake to inform the academic community should an application to the Department be made.”

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27 thoughts on “Vice-Chancellor reflects on research consultation

  1. The Vice-Chancellor has in my opinion missed a golden opportunity to show some leadership on the issue of the CCC. It appears the argument used, that no department will be prevented from seeking this collaboration, in my opinion, is rhetoric to avoid taking responsibility for a decision on this.

    The problem, it seems, people have with this research initiative, apart from the highly political and partisan genesis of its funding inception is not purely its objectionable content but the flawed academic credentials that come along with it. The academic credentials this founder brings are woeful.

    If a first year student were to reference from the majority of his material, being non-peer reviewed and highly questionable academically, they would fail.

    Yet if the Vice Chancellor sits back and allows this Centre to set up; Flinders will be tarnished with the same brush. all our degrees and academics will be tarnished with the same brush, and the many hours and tens of thousands of dollars University fees we all pay will be undervalued over a short-sighted decision blinded by a $4 million inducement.

    If 200 students choose to not come to Flinders because of this Centre any financial gain from the inducement will be more than lost.

    In a funding starved University climate the inducement can be understandably attractive to some, but are we here for the pursuit of academic excellence or the brazen pursuit of making money. I would have hoped a public institution would prioritize the former.

    The role of our leaders is to defend the vision and integrity of the organizations they seek to lead and on the questionable academic credentials of this founder alone that the Vice chancellor needs to show the leadership required to refuse any application for such as academically dubious application from within the University he has the responsibility to lead!

  2. Dear Dan,
    Thanks for the link. I had already read the piece in question. It makes a number of points about the importance of the h-index in evaluation research performance in the citation-based disciplines. But there’s the rub; not all disciplines are citation based. Would you argue that every academic with a similar h-index has no ‘academic credibility’? I’d be surprised if colleagues in the Humanities thought it quite so simple.
    Best wishes,
    Colin

  3. Hi Jason,
    This is not about the money. It is about whether or not our staff can choose to pursue their research interests.
    You concentrate on the record of Lomborg. What I said was that:

    “… any bid ought to focus on research to be done at Flinders University by Flinders academics. The integrity of such research would then be beyond reproach”

    You appear to believe differently. This is your prerogative but it requires that you assert that your colleagues lack academic integrity. I would not agree with any such assertion.
    Best wishes,
    Colin

  4. “This is not about the money. It is about whether or not our staff can choose to pursue their research interests.”

    That is indeed one of the key concerns. There needs to be a recognition that a small group of academics, in exercising their academic freedom and collaborating with Lomborg, could detract from the capacity of the overwhelming majority of academics exercising their own academic freedom. In the university environment, no staff member or student operates as an individual exclusive to all others; rather, a university operates as somewhat of a collective, as an institution, whereby our work can positively (or negatively, in this case) impact upon one another. As you have acknowledged, Prof Stirling, there is significant chance for reputational risk for the university. And when it comes to university reputation, particularly in relation to academic integrity, ‘no (wo)man is an island’.

    Academic freedom is critical. It’s a value to be adhered to and protected. But it is just one of many values to which a university must aspire, and to balance. To try and mimic the Lomborg-cheerleaders in The Australian and portray this as a primarily an issue of academic freedom versus control is reductionist and disingenuously dismisses many of the strong, valid concerns raised by students, staff, and the public.

  5. Can I clarify something? Are you suggesting that we could take the money to collaborate with Lomborg and his centre, but not let him participate in any of the work done by our centre?

  6. Dear Vice-Chancellor,

    Thank you for taking the time to participate in this discussion site.

    It is understandable that you would not seek to prevent Flinders academics from bidding for research funds, nor from collaborating with whomsoever they wish, on the grounds of academic freedom. The question is, however, whether this particular research bid is of sufficient merit to warrant the support of senior University management, including yourself, without which it would presumably fail.

    It is very difficult to debate the merits of the case when the proponents of the bid have not made any attempt to argue their case in the public arena. Notwithstanding the highly supportive communications that have been received by you, the rest of us have been denied the opportunity for “critical analysis and rigorous debate” by the sustained silence that has emanated from the pro-Lomborg camp. Nevertheless, it would appear fundamental than any benefits that would accrue to interested parties would need to be weighed against the considerable professional and reputational damage, of which you are aware, that would be sustained by other colleagues not involved in the bid.

    As I understand your post, it is your intention to discuss the form of the proposal with those whose interests it will serve, and then inform the academic community if and when they take it upon themselves to lodge a future bid. There seems to be little or no regard in this process for the collateral damage that would be inflicted across the university by the lodging of this bid, regardless of what form it may take.

    I would appreciate it if you could clarify the point within this process when we can finally expect the University to “take a position” in relation to this important issue, and on what basis that decision will be reached.

    Sincerely,

    Ruth Vasey

  7. Hi Colin,

    If I am not mistaken, it appears you have the power to intervene. Presumably this power exists so that you can make decisions in the best interest of the University? In your blog, you seem to imply that nothing could compel you to exercise that power. But clearly, such a power, necessitates the existence of a circumstance under which it should be used.

    I firmly believe this is one of those times. The grant tied with the Copenhagen Consensus Centre is transparently political in nature. It has already garnered significant media attention and will inevitably be viewed through this lens (it has been already). Moreover given the reports that much of the grant is tied to marketing and non-scientific endeavors, this perception has a real basis. Bjorn Lomborg’s track record speaks for itself. His main topic of interest is climate change. Yet his publication record on this topic is thin at best. The standards for political science may be lower, but for climate science they are not. He is speaking outside his area of expertise which explains his poor publication record. Whatever your arguments for accepting the CCC, the public perception will be that it was a political deal based on a $4 million sweetener.

    While the gains are easily quantified (it is a grant after all), the costs are not. This deal would tie Flinders credibility to the work of the CCC (it is why a University partner has been sought at all). This cost is difficult to express in monetary terms. It may result in fewer students, fewer grants, fewer successful researchers, fewer donations or fewer publications but tracing these differences to this specific decision would be challenging. What is not difficult to understand is this: By accepting this grant, you will admit that Flinders is a B-grade university. This grant was already rejected by UWA, one of the G08, directly or indirectly due to that institution’s integrity. This was discussed publicly in the media. If you allow this to go ahead, your argument for academic freedom will be seen as weak, disingenuous and politically tainted no matter how vehemently you advocate it. Flinders will be seen to have sold out. The reputation of the University will suffer.

    If you can’t see how your inaction damages the reputation of every academic, student and graduate affilitated with your University, then listen to the people you are supposed to represent, they will explain how it affects them.

    Thankyou for reading,

    Bernard

  8. Dear Prof. Stirling,

    In your conclusion you write “Some have suggested that considering an academic collaboration with the CCC is a risk to Flinders’ reputation. Whatever risk we might face from a successful bid, I believe there would be a greater risk to our reputation if we were to abandon the tenets of academic freedom”.
    Please allow me to point out that Flinders’ academics and students have expressed their overwhelming opposition to the CCC (96 academics out of 100 in the department which should connect with the CCC have expressed their resistance, international press reported last 28 July). A large majority believe that Lomborg has a poor academic record, and it is well known that his best-selling book was officially labelled as “contrary to the standards of good scientific practice” by the Danish Committee on Academic Dishonesty. Then, should a person with such an academic record start collaborating with Flinders University, the problem of reputation could not be ruled out so simply, as – despite your assurances on academic integrity – the reputation of Flinders’ academics would be largely questioned in the local and international academic context, and also beyond that (actually, this is already happening as scholars attending conferences have already been asked more questions about Lomborg than their own paper).
    In addition, accepting to link the CCC with Flinders University in order to champion the academic freedom of few academics would be disrespectful to an overwhelming majority who has always trusted this university and its core values, and have expressed their opposition to the CCC. It would also be disrespectful to Australian taxpayers, who would have to bear the costs of a research centre that only a tiny minority deem necessary. And, most importantly, it would be disrespectful to other major Australian research organisations like CSIRO, which had their funding slashed by the Federal Government in the last two years.
    In conclusion, accepting to bid the Department for the CCC would cause unavoidable damage to the image and reputation of our university and its researchers, in the name of the academic freedom to sustain ideas that the academy itself has already rejected both in Australia and abroad. Do we really need to harm ourselves in a moment when the situation of tertiary education in Australia is already very unclear per se?
    I wish these ideas can be considered in assessing the risks and benefits of such a controversial decision.
    Thanks for your attention and kind regards,

    Stefano

  9. Dear Professor Stirling,

    As per Australian Government, Department of Finance, ‘Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines’, cl. 4 & 6 (below), would it be possible for the University to disseminate the Grant Guidelines that correspond to the $4million dollars Commonwealth grant funding that is currently the subject of much debate within Flinders?

    The relevant clause of the ‘Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines’ reads as follows:

    Requirements for Accountable Authorities and Officials
    4.2 Officials must establish and document whether a proposed activity is a grant prior to applying the CGRGs.
    4.3 Accountable authorities and officials involved in grants administration must comply with government policies and legislation relevant to grants administration.
    4.4 Officials must:
    a. develop grant guidelines for all new granting activities (including grant programmes), and revised guidelines where significant changes have been made to the current granting activity;*30
    b. have regard to the seven key principles for grants administration;
    c. ensure that grant guidelines and related internal guidance are consistent with the CGRGs; and
    d. advise the relevant Minister on the relevant requirements of the PGPA Act and rules and the CGRGs, where a Minister is considering a proposed expenditure of relevant money for a grant.

    6.2 The seven key principles for grants administration that apply to all forms of granting activity and all processes and phases of grants administration are:
    – robust planning and design;
    – collaboration and partnership;
    – proportionality;
    – an outcomes orientation;
    – achieving value with relevant money;
    – governance and accountability; and
    – probity and transparency.

    *30 Grant guidelines are required for all grants, including one-off or ad hoc grants. The format and complexity should be proportionate to the activity. A risk-based approach is in place for consideration of new or revised programme guidelines (including guidelines for granting activities). Officials involved in the development or revision of programme guidelines are required to complete a risk assessment of the granting activities and associated guidelines, in consultation with the Department of Finance and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

    Try though I might, I have been unable to source the required Guidelines that pertain to the $4million of Commonwealth funding that is apparently currently on offer.

    It may also be helpful for advice to be provided to the Flinders’ community with regard to the defined deadline/close date of this funding opportunity. In my experience, all grant funding opportunities have a closing date.

    This information may greatly inform the current live debate.

    With thanks in advance,

    Julie Petticrew

  10. Dear Colin,

    First I would like to start by saying that I agree with many of the comments that have made it out of moderation to date in response to your post and especially with Ruth’s one.

    From my experience in Research management, large bids of highly strategic importance to the University do have to seek the support of University senior management. And usually such support do come with a University commitment whether in the form of in-kind or cash commitment.

    It is also unclear to me, and I feel we’ve received mixed messages on this point, why this issue falls under the DVC-A portfolio and not the DVC-R? Surely the DVC-R would have to be the one endorsing the creation of a Research centre on behalf of the University, should a bid be successful?

    Finally I would like to finish by thanking you for recently asking us to express our voice, our values and the values we wish for the university to embrace, and would like to take the opportunity to reiterate some of my responses below:

    – accountability from the University to the community
    – accountability from Senior management
    – social progress
    – integrity
    – transparency
    – fairness

    With kind regards,
    Elodie

  11. Hi Josh,
    I understand your concerns but the reality is that we cannot pick-and-choose when it comes to academic freedom (other than when the views expressed are illegal). It is frankly not enough that some differ in opinion, no matter how many.
    Colin

  12. 6. Hi Michael. I don’t think I said that. What I’d support would be a bid that was primarily to fund research at Flinders by Flinders academics. Colin

  13. 7. Dear Ruth. I have taken the position as per my statement. I do not agree that there will be collateral damage because I would expect any research undertaken by Flinders Academics to be rigorous and independent. Judge your colleagues by what they actually do, not by what you fear they might. Colin

  14. In response to Annette (post 11).

    I am concerned that you have made such a wide sweeping claim on behalf of ‘the vast bulk of students’. I for one, and there are many more, find it deeply concerning that such a proposal could be considered, given the disreputable academic reputation of Bjorn Lomborg.

    Most students have no idea that this discussion has even taken place. This could be attributed to the lack of transparency and readily available information in relation to the proposition put forward by the Vice-Chancellor. The original blog post from July 24 fails to mention Bjorn Lomborg’s name or academic history, or what the collaboration will entail. Information that is critical in understanding why the proposal is worthy of collaboration.

    I would not have known that Flinders is seriously considering this proposal, without the enthusiastic and proactive disposition of academics that have voiced their views within this debate.

    Thank you,

    Louise (Student)

  15. 8. Hi Bernard.
    Do you think that your Flinders colleagues would be patsies for a political agenda? I doubt it. I expect that they would pursue rigorous research aimed at finding the answers to important problems and to do so without fear or favour.
    Colin

  16. 11. Annette, Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. I’ll try to look at the article you refer to later. Colin

  17. 12. Dear Elodie,
    Andrew Parkin has been leading the discussion because it is a research field in which he has a direct interest and long experience. As for “Moderation” I shall ask whether any comments have been filtered-out. I would hope not as the only reason for filtering would be if any were in breach of the law. Colin

  18. Dear Colin,

    Please note I only mentioned moderation to specify that I agreed with the comments I could see at that time, there might have been comments awaiting moderation with which I wouldn’t agree.
    What about the issue of financial and strategic support from the university?
    With kind regards,
    Elodie

  19. Hello Elodie, thank you for your clarification. In turn we can confirm that all comments from university staff and students to the news blog have been published. One post from an external correspondent has been rejected through the moderation process as a result of inappropriate language. best regards, the marcomms team

  20. Dear Vice-Chancellor,

    I wonder if I could interrogate for a moment the academic freedom argument, as that is clearly fundamental to the position you are adopting. If I understand correctly, barring questions of illegality (Comment 11), academic freedom trumps all other considerations, so much so that this cannot be regarded as a balancing exercise between potentially competing values (whatever they may be). That is indeed a compelling argument in our environment and, if it could be said to be part of the Flinders institutional framework, it would be most difficult to refute.

    However, Flinders has already demonstrated that it is prepared to put academic freedom behind other values in at least one area. I refer here to the Council Resolution on Tobacco Industry Funding:

    “The University will not accept research or consultancy funding offered to the institution or to individual researchers which is known to be derived directly or indirectly, other than by taxation or government levies, from the tobacco industry, nor to advertise such grant opportunities.”

    Putting to one side the neat parallel that the current matter is also one of whether the university will accept funding offered to it from a particular source (which is arguably tainted by political considerations and the absence of traditional peer review evaluation), it must be pointed out that, for so long as this Council resolution stands, it is both precedent for and a testament to the fact that Flinders can “pick-and-choose when it comes to academic freedom” (Comment 11).

    At this point, the “trumps” argument has to be considered as falling away, and we are liberated now to consider when, as a university, a value or values other than academic freedom may be so strong as to overcome the very high bar set by our commitment to it. That is, the Council resolution demonstrates that the scope does exist at Flinders to enter upon a balancing exercise. Further, there is no shame in doing so. In this regard, I point to another value we hold dearly, namely freedom of speech, but, to use the time-honoured illustration, that does not allow us to shout “Fire” in a crowded cinema.

    Others have put forward their views as to what considerations should be thrown into the balance, and I make no comment on them. What I point out is that to date, those arguments have not been able to be given their due because it has been considered that academic freedom is an irrefutable argument. Perhaps it can now be seen that there is a pathway open to take a less absolute and more nuanced approach to the matter. Indeed, rather that relying upon a talismanic assertion of the notion of academic freedom, we would enhance the concept by showing that only the most potent and formidable of countervailing considerations could overcome it.

    I close by thanking you for creating the opportunity for members of the university community to put forward their views on this matter, and for offering your responses to the points they have made.

    Gary Davis

  21. Hi Colin,

    It is interesting that you ignored the vast majority of my remarks and chose to deflect with a subtle ad-hominem. Whether I think Flinders researchers would be patsies to a political agenda or not is irrelevant. The purpose of this discourse is to discuss your actions and responsibilities (unless those applying for this grant are reading this blog with enthusiasm).

    Your basic argument is that the damage to Flinders reputation due to loss of academic freedom outweighs the damage caused by accepting the CCC grant.

    By accepting the grant, the decision will reflect directly on the University and the associated risks will be worn by Flinders individually. By rejecting it, the decision will instead reflect on Australian Universities in general. This is already evident in the media (a cursory examination would demonstrate this) where the discussion is about Australian Universities rather than UWA specifically. Moreover, the negative media is largely limited to political bloggers (who are routinely critical of academia).

    In essence, any argument about academic freedom specifically damaging Flinders University is at best overstated. Pragmatically, given that those against the centre appear to be your constituents and those for the centre appear to ‘not really’ be your constituents shouldn’t that inform your decision?

    As a final note, if your argument is for academic freedom, isn’t the appearance of academic integrity just as important? Assuming the centre goes ahead, wouldn’t the source of funding taint the interpretation of the results? Would it not be better for Lomborg to go through the usual grant process so as to give full legitimacy to the work?

    Cheers,
    Bernard

  22. Dear Vice Chancellor

    what are your views on academic integrity? I can understand why you may feel the need to be defensive about this issue, but do you have any responsibilities in your job description for the morale of staff and students?

    Carolyn

  23. My understanding is not that people wish to suppress Lomborg for being “controversial” but that they question his credentials which is a valid question. I am sure any academic that the university works with has to have a good record of academic publications and reputable qualifications.

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous to try to reframe the argument as being about academic freedom and pretending that in academia just anyone can say just anything and that is always allowed. I haven’t seen anyone attack Lomberg for divergent thinking, more that he has a reputation for not being rigorous and lacking academic integrity.

  24. I am puzzled by three things. Firstly: if the application for the 4 million dollars on offer from the Federal Government to establish a Consensus Centre with Bjorn Lomborg attached is being developed by Flinders University academics, how will these applicants guarantee that their research will be fully independent research according to this university’s standards, when Lomborg is part of the funding package? Secondly:I believe that a substantial amount of the funding on offer is dedicated to funding the activities that Dr Lomborg will undertake on the federal government’s behalf. If therefore not all of the four million will be available for independent research, I wonder if you would be able to tell me how much is actually available to the applicants and whether those funds are guaranteed to have no strings attached? Finally: if the Flinders university academics are successful in their application, what would they be required to do to support Bjorn Lomborg given that the government’s principle aim is to base him in a reputable university in order to provide him with the respectability and credibility that it would give his work?

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