Research without grants

I have just come to the end of my field work for the incivility project I mentioned in the last post. This research has been self-funded – that is, I received no money from outside sources, and I paid all of the project’s expenses with my own salary. It hasn’t been desk research, either. I’ve done face to face interviews in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and spent weeks away from home as a result.

I’m not asking for a medal – mainly I’m posting about this because I don’t often hear academic colleagues in Australia talking about self-funded research. People talk a lot about the difficulties of getting ARC funding, and even more about the pressure that universities put on academics over funding applications, but there’s less about projects that don’t use or need additional government assistance.

Before detailing my own experiences further it’s probably best that I acknowledge some of my privileges. Since 2007 (more or less) I have had full-time employment in the Australian university system, and my partner has also had a full-time academic job for that entire time. I am able-bodied, childless, located in southern/metropolitan Australia and easily able to travel. I have friends in a number of Australian cities who have been willing and able to put me up when I come to town to do interviews. So I suppose I have a lot of advantages when it comes to contemplating funding my own research. But there are many people in academia with some or all of these advantages.

Even though I em well-placed to fund my own research, the self-funding of this project happened almost by accident. At the beginning, I thought that I had secured, with a colleague, some money from an outside source, which we would use to pay for a seed project that we would work up into an ARC Linkage application. But the partner pulled out due to an inability to commit the resources they had thought they could. I decided to go ahead anyway, realising that the scale of the project meant that it really wouldn’t take much to get it finished.

In the end, I think this lack of external funding wound up being a benefit for several reasons. First, the project became tighter and reflected my own personal research interests more closely. Whereas the partner had wanted more of a focus on the challenges incivility poses to realising a policy vision – i.e. to power – my increasingly ratbaggy cast of mind meant that I was much more interested in using incivility to explore and define the work of those who are “below the line” in political communication – not politicians and celebrity journalists but ordinary political communication workers. I wanted to keep hold of the possibility of viewing the limitation of state power and the critique of expert systems that incivility contains as welcome developments. I wanted to at least consider that the problem wasn’t rude people, but poorly-adapted institutions, and flaws in our political system. The lack of a partners input meant I could more easily pursue this more critical instinct.

Second, I had no forms to fill out apart from human ethics paperwork. No acquittals, no tedious grant applications, no endless repetitions of a project prospectus, no worries about whether or not the project looked “fundable”. A wise man once told me that a grant application involves about as much work as a peer-reviewed paper. Having avoided spending that time, I can now use it to write one more paper, or finish my book faster. As it happens, I think that in the future there will be a version of this research that will benefit from funding – indeed I think it is “fundable” in a sense right now. But for now I haven’t needed to bend it into anyone else’s shape. I wasn’t led into feeling like it had failed before it started because it failed to receive ARC funding. Thus the project lives, and now it gets to develop at its own pace.

Third, the whole thing is portable. I just quit my job. Next week I am moving to America. The whole project is basically on my laptop, the cloud and a secure hard drive. I don’t need to move the whole administrative infrastucture of a grant, or leave that work in someone else’s hands. If they have desks and libraries in Los Angeles there will be no down time. There are even more advantages than this, but that will do for now.

I write the above this not to suggest that humanities and social sciences research can go on without any funding. Nor because I think funding and the people who get it are bad. And nor am I saying that I myself will never do funded research in the future.

But I know that the process of trying to get funding can get in the way of doing research. I think that institutional pressures sometimes lead people to collapse the distinctions between funding and research, and to think that if it’s not funded it’s not worth doing, or it should be put off until it is funded. I think that researchers and universities sometimes misallocate resources that could be going into research by investing them in failed and unnecessary bids. We all know why universities carry on like this, but that doesn’t mean we have to. We shouldn’t forget about what we already have at our disposal – our training, our wonderful cheap technologies, our salaries, cheap air travel, friends’ couches.

Anyway, for now I’ll just say that I think that resisting the identification of funding and research is in general a good thing, because it means that we are refusing the adoption of institutional imperatives as our own, and not letting them get in the way of our first duty: expanding human knowledge. We’re also refusing “fundability” as a criterion of quality and worth in research – we’re asserting instead some things are simply worth knowing, and others will see why when we explain it later. And that’s a way of challenging the forms both of careerism and coercion that have developed around funding structures and priorities. (The enduring need to publish research, however it is gathered, is a story for another day).

Self-funded research isn’t possible for everyone, and it’s not the only way to do things. But my experience in the last few months tells me there’s a politics there worth exploring further, which involves ways of reclaiming research from the ARC (and therefore the state) from research bureaucracies in universities, and maybe from commercial partners as well. This is important not least because in my view, it makes research more fun.