Ratbag research

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 9 March 2018 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

A country scene, with three posts in the foreground: Strength; Mates; Ratbags.
For Mates and Ratbags, by Michael Coghlan, on Flickr.

Last year, the International Campaign to Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace prize for their work “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and their “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”.

Recently, I was at an event where the inimitable Dave Sweeney lovingly referred to ICAN as ratbags. He wasn’t being insulting – ‘ratbag’ is one of those wonderful Australian words that means that ICAN are troublemakers, people who are contrary, and don’t follow the rules.

I immediately knew what he meant. In 10 years, ICAN has gone from a group of activists, doctors, academics and concerned citizens to a worldwide advocacy group that has spearheaded the creation of an international treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. They have had a huge impact in changing the way that people, and countries, think about nuclear weapons.

The ratbag effect

It made me wonder if the University of Melbourne would include this work in the Australian Research Council’s Engagement and Impact Assessment exercise this year. There is no question that ICAN have successfully engaged the public, on a global scale. They’ve done this by bringing a fresh approach to an intractable problem, the abolition of nuclear weapons. They have had impressive results. As far as impact goes, you can’t go past the establishment of an international treaty.

The University of Melbourne would have every right to include this in their impact assessment, I think. An impressive list of Australian researchers have been involved with ICAN over the years: Tilman Ruff, AM (University of Melbourne), Fred Mendelsohn, AO (Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health), John Langmore (University of Melbourne), Joseph Camilleri, OAM (La Trobe University), Nic Maclellan (independent researcher), and Richard Tanter (University of Melbourne).

Somehow, though, I doubt that the universities will see it that way. For the most part, this work has been underfunded, and undertaken in spare hours stolen from busy schedules. Many of these people are medical researchers, arguing that geopolitics is a public health concern. So, most of the work doesn’t sit well with their disciplines, the establishment, or those accursed, outdated Field of Research codes. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the universities have either ignored this work or, at best, encouraged it with benign neglect.

Vale, Jock McCulloch

At the time that I was being told that ICAN were ratbags, I was mourning the passing of a great Australian historian. Jock McCulloch passed away on 18 January 2018. Jock was a terrific historian. He specialised in exposing the misdeeds of the asbestos industry, and providing those who had suffered with the information that they needed to redress their wrongs. Jock was one of those wonderful scholar-gentlemen, urbane and erudite, gentle but with a core of steel.

In some ways, Jock’s work was completely different from ICAN’s. Jock often worked alone. He was comparatively well-funded, being supported by the ARC from 2004 until his death. He was a member of both the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia: the core of the research establishment.

However, his work also has some similarities. They both speak truth to power. They both provide activists with the raw materials that they need to fight for what they believe in. Their work made trouble for people and, through that trouble, they made the world a better place.

This is ratbag research at its best!

The ratbag researcher

My job is to help people get funding, so I often have researchers who come to me and ask, “How can I get a grant?”.

In essence, they are saying, “What are the rules for getting a grant?”. They are asking for certainty, for a recipe that they can follow. I don’t have any of that. I point them towards the written rules, but that isn’t what they are looking for. They want an assurance that, if they do the work and follow the rules, they will be funded. They are seeking to understand the steps they need to take to be successful.

That’s perfectly understandable. Playing by the rules (even the unwritten rules) generally seems the safe bet. Rules provide the illusion of certainty in an uncertain world.

However, if you want to play by the rules, you need to understand what they really are. For a growing proportion of academics, the rules look like this:

  • You are never going to have secure employment.
  • You may not even have full employment.
  • When you are employed, you will be measured in everything you do, against a set of arbitrary targets that you have no control over.
  • Those targets will be set by university managers who display little or no understanding (or regard) for the work that you actually do.
  • Achieving, or even exceeding, those targets will not provide you with little or no control over the direction of your work.
  • Achieving, or even exceeding, those targets will not protect you against being arbitrarily restructured out of your job.
  • Even though you love your research topic, you may come to hate your university.

Playing by those rules doesn’t sound like much fun at all. It certainly isn’t the safe bet.

Playing by the rules is the opposite of being a ratbag. Ratbags work against the rules. The rules for ratbag research look something like this:

  • Follow your research passion with single-minded obsession.
  • Work with others who are similarly obsessed, whoever they may be. Many of these people won’t be researchers, or even academics. They will, however, be committed.
  • Ignore (or co-opt) your university’s priorities, their mission and vision statements and anything else that doesn’t seem grounded in reality.
  • Above all, do great research.

This approach comes with a number of warnings. It won’t make you popular with your university. It probably won’t make your life any easier. It almost certainly won’t get you a job, a promotion or a tenured position. Ratbag research will lead to long hours, poor prospects and no security.

However, if your university is offering you a zero-hour contract or won’t tell you your teaching load until a week before semester starts, maybe that job, that promotion, isn’t as enticing as it once seemed. If you are already facing long hours, poor prospects and no security, then you may as well spend your time on something you love.

At its best, ratbag research will nourish your soul. It will feed your passion. At times, it will provide you with great satisfaction, in a world where that is getting rarer and rarer. It will give you a chance to do the research that you feel you need to do. If the alternative is following the rules in the university as it currently exists, maybe it’s time for a little ratbag research.

Update: 12 April 2018

To make the argument that ICAN should be considered an example of university research impact, I looked for senior academics who were, or are, employed by Australian universities. I drew most of my information from the ‘About ICAN Australia‘ page, and the two historical articles that it points to.

In doing so, I excluded a large number of people and I apologise for that. Thanks to Ray Acheson for mentioning some of the women researchers involved:

and to Dimity Hawkins for reminding me of the indigenous women leaders and international participants:

My apologies for not acknowledging the important efforts of these people.


  1. Thanks so much – this post is just what I needed to read today. I’m going to print this out and stick your dot-points on my wall as a reminder of just why it is that we do research regardless of all the other crap that comes our way.


    • Thanks, Liz. I’m glad you liked it. I had a crappy day yesterday, too. As you said, good to have a reminder.


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