The Minister’s veto and why we should do Social Sciences Week again

Dan Woodman, President, The Australian Sociological Association: 

The major challenges facing our society are questions about how we live together and how we share the resources we have. Refugee policy, financial regulation and even climate change are questions for which sociological knowledge is central. These would seem to be the conditions, however unfortunate, in which Sociology would thrive. Indeed, in many ways Sociology is in rude health, with engaged students, successful researchers and TASA members appearing in the media on a regular basis. The past week, however, has also put into stark relief the challenges we face.

Really Minister Birmingham? A Ministerial Veto

The questions Sociology addresses are also political questions and often caught up in the ‘culture wars’. Sociology and the Social Sciences broadly, along with the Humanities, are constantly being asked to justify their worth and challenged in their legitimacy in a way that the natural sciences rarely are (climate science aside). This week in Senate Estimates it came out that 11 ARC Discovery applications in the 2017 round, including DECRAs and Future Fellowships, were selected for funding but then vetoed by Simon Birmingham, the then Minister for Education (like Prime Ministers, they don’t seem to stay in the job long). The academics caught up in this ministerial meanness mostly came from the Humanities, but the topics vetoed tended to have a sociological flavour.

As well as being generally nasty and a huge waste of people’s time, good will and resources, this would have been personally devastating for the academics involved, who included some sociologists and TASA members. Solidarity to all the academics dealing with this news. A huge amount of work goes into putting together a proposal and getting one up can make a big difference to a career. Indeed, one of the early career academics whose project was vetoed by Minister Birmingham then had to pack up his family and move to the other side of the world. As he put it in his Twitter feed, ‘my family would have stayed in Australia…instead, we dragged ourselves to the other side of the planet, away from everything and everyone we love and care about’.

The ARC Discovery scheme is hugely competitive and, while there are legitimate equity concerns raised about the outcomes, no one is successful without an exceptional proposal. I take some heart in the way the veto has been widely condemned (see the statements from the Universities Australia, Australian Academy of the Humanities, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Australian Academy of Science).

While TASA is in good shape, we need to work with other Social Science associations to collectively counter efforts to undermine the Social Sciences and Humanities, pushing back against a culture in which the Minister thinks they have the expertise to write-off a project aimed at better understanding society at the stroke of a pen, because they don’t like the title.

What a Wonderful (Social Sciences) Week

With The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) taking the lead, several of Australia’s Social Science peak bodies and key associations made such a collective effort this year, with Social Sciences Week (SSW). Forty-seven events took place across the country (the NT was the only state to miss out and it is top of my list for an event next year). These events were publicly accessible and mostly public focused, showcasing the diversity and impact of Sociology and the Social Sciences more broadly. As well as over 2,000 attendees in person, several events were recorded for broadcast on the ABC and there were op-eds in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian.

Along with others on the Organising Committee, I also met with key parliamentarians during the week, aiming to build a cross-party coalition of supporters of the Social Sciences and hopefully a bulwark against future Ministerial interventions like we saw with the 2018 round of ARC funding.

Please Indulge Me in a Few Thank Yous

Please indulge me in giving a few shout-outs to the wonderful people who helped make Social Sciences Week happen. SSW began as an idea over two years ago, a plan to get associations collaborating to highlight the value of Social Sciences. Discussions with some of our major sibling associations began shortly after that and we had our Local Organising Committee in place over a year ago. Thank you to the rest of the committee for taking SSW from idea to reality: Tara McGee (President of Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology), Richard Vokes (President of the Australian Anthropological Society), Sarah Maddison (President of the Australian Political Studies Association), Divya Das (Executive Manager of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) and Sunny Hutson (Public Engagement Manager at the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia).

Thanks also to all the universities that supported SSW by hosting events. The University of Western Australia led the way as the host with the most, holding six events, with Western Sydney University and my own University of Melbourne close behind. With my TASA President’s hat on, a particular thanks to Nicholas Hookway, our Public Engagement Portfolio Leader, who led planning for TASA’s marque events and Peta Cook, our Thematic Groups Portfolio Leader, who helped bring about a number of events run by our thematic groups (and also led an event of her own) and thanks to each event organiser (I’ve listed the TASA associated events below – apologies if I missed anyone). Of course, nothing TASA related happens without the irreplaceable Sally Daly who helped with event organising and the SSW website. A quick mention, too, of Deborah Lupton, as a star performer among TASA members during SSW, presenting at three events, and Farida Fozdar who had a major presenting role at the Inclusive Cities event at Western Sydney University as well as helping to wrangling the multiple events at University of Western Australia.

After a successful first outing, Social Sciences Week looks set to become a recurring way of collectively advocating for the value of the Social Sciences and hopefully making sure any future Minister thinks twice before wielding the vetoing pen again.

TASA Affiliated Events during Social Sciences Week

  • The Beaumont Children: Investigations and Implications of a Cold-Case (University of Newcastle) –  Moderated by Joel McGregor, with panellists Dr Xanthé Mallett, Duncan McNab and Ben Lohmeyer; see report below and video of the event here.
  • Migration, Social Inclusion and the Multicultural City (Western Sydney University, Parramatta campus) – organised by Kristine Aquino and Jennifer Cheng (report below).
  • Digital Society: New Frontiers in Sociological Research (Australian National University) – organised by Timothy Graham, Naomi Smith and Scott Doidge.
  • Why are Australian Men so Prone to Loneliness? And What We Are Going to Do About It? University of South Australia – organised by Nicholas Hookway and featuring Peter Beilharz, Adrian Franklin, Katrina Jaworski and Bruce Tranter; Recorded by ABC for Radio National Big Ideas (broadcast date not yet confirmed).
  • What is Ageism, and What Can We Do About It? Hosted by the Wicking Dementia Education and Research Centre and the School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, featuring Peta Cook.
  • What a Bill of Rights for Australia Might Look Like? (James Cook University) – JCU academics invited Year 9 students from around Townsville & North QLD to come to Townsville campus and discuss this topic. The lead organiser was Theresa Petray. Here is a video about the day. https://ly/2pdkiZR
  • The Social Science of Terrorism: Understanding Causes, Consequences and Effective Responses – Event for students at St Catherine’s School, Toorak, Victoria, featuring Joshua Roose.
  • Social Movements and Social Change – A session for students at Korumburra College, a regional Victorian secondary college – featuring Max Holleran.
  • Ethics in Sociology Research – Presentation at Wodonga Senior Secondary College, a regional Victorian secondary school – featuring Nexus Editor, Eileen Clark.
  • Diversity within Diversity: The Lost Voices – The Andrew Jakubowicz Annual Lecture (featuring Saba Bebawi), UTS Sydney.


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