21st September 2012: Paper Abstracts for International Studies Association’s Annual Convention 2013

Coauthor Ben Eltham (a PhD candidate at University of Western Sydney and rising star in Australian national affairs journalism for Crikey and New Matilda) and I have two papers accepted for the International Studies Association‘s annual convention in San Francisco in 2013:


Australia’s Strategic Culture and Constraints in Defense and National Security Policymaking


Scholars have advanced different conceptualizations of Australia’s strategic culture. Collectively, this work contends Australia is a ‘middle power’ nation with a realist defense policy, elite discourse, entrenched military services, and a regional focus. This paper contends that Australia’s strategic culture has unresolved tensions due to the lack of an overarching national security framework, and policymaking constraints at two interlocking levels: cultural worldviews and institutional design that affects strategy formulation and resource allocation. The cultural constraints include confusion over national security policy, the prevalence of neorealist strategic studies, the Defence Department’s dominant role in formulating strategic doctrines, and problematic experiences with Asian ‘regional engagement’ and the Pacific Islands. The institutional constraints include resourcing, inter-departmental coordination, a narrow approach to government white papers, and barriers to long-term strategic planning. In this paper, we examine possibilities for continuity and change, including the Gillard Government’s forthcoming ‘Asian Century’ whitepaper and 2013 defense whitepaper.


(Thanks to Wooster College’s Jeff Lantis for coordinating the Strategic Culture panel that this paper is on.)


Complexity, Model Risk, and International Security


International security thinking has evolved beyond initial research in the early-to-mid using the chaos and complexity sciences. Firms including Kissinger & Associates, Pimco, The Prediction Company (now part of UBS), Roubini Global Economics and Stratfor have created new models to understand catastrophic/tail risks, and to profit from geopolitical flashpoints such as the current speculative bubble in rare earths, China’s growth in the Asia-Pacific region, and the greater involvement of multi-national corporations in the international political economy. This paper builds on the work of scholars in international security and the sociology of economics and finance, journalists, and hedge fund and risk management practitioners, to address how these new models have diffused into hybrid academic-commercial environments, how they construct new social realities, and ‘model risk’. We focus on structural micro-foundations: to what degrees and under what conditions do the assumptions underlying these new risk models correspond to real-world phenomena like geopolitical flashpoints? Are these phenomena measurable? Are the relationships between them robust? We examine as a case study the Anonymous hack of Stratfor in December 2011, Stratfor’s planned hedge fund StratCap, and Stratfor’s reaction including its hiring in March 2012 of Atlantic Monthly journalist Robert D. Kaplan.

19th September 2012: On CRC PhDs

The Australian‘s Jill Rowbotham on Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) and PhD programs:


The $165 million annual program is also the 12th largest provider nationally of research students, including those undertaking research masters degrees, according to Nigel Palmer from the University of Melbourne who authored the study, The CRC Contribution to Research Training.


Rowbotham’s reportage omits a crucial detail: Who controls the PhD’s resulting intellectual property?


In 2006, a former colleague and I were offered PhD scholarships at the Smart Internet Technology CRC (SITCRC) to research internet futures and would be based at Swinburne University. The offer was an Australian Postgraduate Award equivalent amount plus CRC top-up funding of $10-15,000. The contract’s catch-all clause was that the CRC would gain the PhD’s intellectual property and would control the ‘decision rights’ for its public dissemination and commercial use. The former colleague and I both rejected the deal and retained our existing roles. We privately felt this was a way for the SITCRC to pad its research outputs with minimal investment in research programs. I later saw a PhD candidate criticise the SITCRC for this policy in an internet media interview. The SITCRC projected over its existence that it would have 100 PhD students; in reality it had about 30. I worked on the successful bid for the Smart Services CRC and its initial organisational plans had similar goals to recruit and fund PhD students. (In 2011, I began a part-time PhD in political science at Monash University and you can read my initial proposal here.)


Palmer and Rowbotham appear to take the CRC’s industry collaboration viewpoint at face value. Yes, this has benefits: PhD researchers often learn project management skills and gain knowledge of specific industries. There are many different types of CRCs, and variances in organisational cultures and research management practices (which an aggregate level analysis can miss). However, there are also often strict, commercial non-disclosure agreements on research and publication that affect the collegiality of CRC PhD programs. These non-disclosure agreements can isolate PhD researchers: if you don’t sign then you don’t get the PhD stipend or CRC research position. I have talked with several current PhD students at other CRCs who are frustrated by these agreement clauses. The CRC focus on industry reports is also at odds with the Excellence for Research in Australia’s emphasis on publication in high-impact, peer reviewed academic journals (an issue raised in ERA 2010 reviews by former researchers at another CRC). If the CRC embargoes research or modifies it then the delays and changes can detrimentally affect a researcher’s publication track record and thus their competitiveness and future career path. Finally, the former senior quality officer in me wonders: “leads world in collaboration” compared with whom? Stanford’s innovation programs and Silicon Valley? Stanford and Sandhill Road‘s venture capital firms?


CRCs are complex, collaborative vehicles for industry research. There are lots of potential improvement opportunities.


For some background on this, read my 2008 submissions to the Review of the National Innovation System (PDF) and the Review of the CRCs Program (PDF).

18th September 2012: Career Opportunities

Maxxim Consulting‘s Claire Arnold has stirred up a Twitter frenzy on #phdchat and #ecrchat with her Guardian article on post-PhD academic careers. Arnold who is a management consultant considers three possibilities: become a ‘star’ researcher; raise your profile as a public intellectual; or enter university management. Arnold observes: “Ultimately, academics will need to go where the money is.” (I agree but I have a slightly different interpretation.)


QUT’s Ben Kraal summed up many Twitter respondents: “How a new PhD graduate with little research experience, few publications and no established management track record can become internationally renowned or allowed to manage an organisation the size and complexity of a university is clearly left as an exercise to the motivated reader.”


Readers of this blog’s Academia thread will be familiar with my stance on these issues. Academia like other industries is now the domain of Hollywood-like superstar economics where a ‘winner-takes-all’ ethic prevails. The past year several Australian universities have undertaken redundancy programs as part of cost reduction measures. A small minority have become academic entrepreneurs who ‘bootstrap’ their careers like Susan Blackmore and Kate Distin. In this volatile, competitive climate, corporate boards look for visionary leadership and turn to Clayton Christensen‘s Disruptive Innovation Theory for guidance. Exhibit one: University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan and Helen Dragas and the debate surrounding the “high-finance” worldview (hedge funds and private equity) of some senior decision-makers at UV. Disgruntled academics look for scapegoats and often blame university administrators.


Arnold’s suggested career pathways are easier to understand if you reconsider the contemporary university as like a Classical Hollywood film studio. Australia’s Group of 8 universities are similar to Hollywood’s major studios whilst some of the ‘dual sector’ institutions are more like Val Lewton‘s B film unit or Roger Corman‘s independent productions. Every university has their high-profile academics and public intellectuals: these are similar to Hollywood’s star system and its auteur directors. Universities and film studios both have their senior management and administration. University academics who are successful at competitive grants are akin to Hollywood producers assembling creative teams and packaging film deals.


It takes serious investment and a marketing budget in Hollywood to create a star. It takes the support of film critics, media outlets and subcultures to create an auteur who will build an audience regardless of a film’s initial financial performance (the studio looks to ‘versioning’ and ancillary markets as other revenue streams). Production, administration, and senior management career pathways in Hollywood are different to ‘above the line’ creatives and are the fodder for films like Barton Fink, The Player, and The Kid Stays In The Picture.


Academia has some similar dynamics. Arnold’s “global researcher” will be backed by research incentives, university administrative support, a travel budget, marketers, and increasingly, a book agent for commercial publishers. Her “public intellectual” will at least have negotiated a flexible work schedule, and like Canadian anthropologist Sam Dunn, will probably co-run production companies or spin-out consulting firms. Dean and Vice-Chancellor roles involve Professors who have management experience or managers who enter the higher education sector.


However, the current climate of cost reductions, redundancies, and changes to research incentives means that several of Arnold’s options are closed to many academics. Australian universities now rarely fund “public intellectuals” because television programs and media coverage do not translate into priority research outputs that are measured by government metrics on institutional research performance. (Yes, there’s The Conversation, but it can also be an echo chamber and it doesn’t pay academics for their content.) Arnold’s “global superstars” have often spent decades building up their own infrastructure and research programs — and they get institutional attention because they are a more likely return on investment. You won’t get promoted to Dean unless you are first a high-performing Professor and effective School Head who can manage industry donors, complex multi-stakeholder negotiations, and organisational change management programs.


How then can a newly minted PhD academic deal with Kraal’s concerns? The Early Career Researcher (ECR) phase or first five years after PhD conferral is a crucial period for academic positioning in a superstar economics climate. Use the PhD to gain self-mastery of your discipline, research design and methods, and to get across the current debates in relevant international journals. Develop a distinctive research program with well-formed goals and milestones that will differentiate you as a significant researcher. Cultivate research mentors. Have a rolling 100-day plan and conduct regular retrospectives on your progress. Know your research administrators, cultivate institutional capital, and apply for internal grant schemes (read the funding rules and instructions to applicants). Find out what institutional research incentives you have access to. Use international conferences, social media and citation metrics carefully to network, amplify your presence, and to raise your profile and visibility. Get a commercial book agent. Learn some agile project management skills. Learn about intellectual property. Publish in the best journals that you can and for the most appropriate audiences that you want to reach. Read The Research Whisperer and The Thesis Whisperer.


Remember: the ECR period is more like the taut, warehouse punk rock The Clash rather than the drug-fueled, band in-fighting of Combat Rock.

17th September 2012: Conspiracy Theories In The Middle East

Foreign Policy blogger Stephen Walt observes:


It’s no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the “birthers?”) I’ve heard them every time I’ve lectured in the region and done my best to debunk them.


I used to edit the alternative news site Disinformation (1998-2003 site archive here). When I got access to the server logs I found the site was getting significant readers from Middle East countries. This was one of several reasons why I did not pursue or publish September 11 conspiracy theories during my editorial stint (which subsequent editors and user-generated content have reversed). It is territory that historian Jeffrey Herf examined during the World War II period in his book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Ithaca NY: Yale University Press, 2009). An Amazon.com search on “conspiracy theories” reveals the book Orientalism and Conspiracy: Politics and Conspiracy Theory in the Islamic World (London: IB Tauris, 2010).


Marc Ambinder and Daniel Drezner’s comments (here) on the Cairo and Benghazi riots recalls a point that Ben Eltham and I made in our Twitter Free Iran (2009) conference paper: social media content can trigger a causality chain that leads to deaths ‘in real life’.

15th September 2012: What I’m Reading

What I’m reading this weekend:


Evgeny Morozov on The Naked and the TED (The New Republic). The Khannas’ use of Technik comes from Oswald Spengler’s Man & Technics (1931) which I read as an undergraduate. Morozov is scathing about populist futures consulting and writing in a way that resonates with strategic foresight colleagues and that recalls Mark Dery’s writings for 21C and other publications. I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) in the office of Newcastle’s This Is Not Art festival.


Situational Awareness (Ritholtz). Money manager Barry Ritholtz makes some excellent points about how to prioritise daily work and to cut through the noise and unimportant/non-urgent tasks.


Anatomy of a Campus Coup (New York Times). Andrew Rice’s profile of the University of Virginia crisis involving president Teresa Sullivan is a glimpse of the Machiavellian politics and patronage systems that university administrators work in, daily. The role of trader Paul Tudor Jones and disruptive innovation proponent Clayton Christensen are a harbinger of what is to come in higher education. The “high-finance mentality” of private equity and hedge funds is reshaping university boards and driving cost reduction initiatives.


How Michael Jackson Made Bad (The Atlantic Monthly). Joseph Vogel analyses the media backlash and record industry politics that led Jackson to experiment with technological innovation. “Study the greats, and become greater.”


Who Wants To Be A Billionaire? (Vanity Fair). The inside track to the startup incubator Y-Combinator and its opportunity evaluation and venture capital screening processes.


Obama’s Way (Vanity Fair). Michael Lewis’s profile combines his interviewing and narrative gifts with some shrewd insights worthy of Richard Neustadt about the decision-making challenges and processes of the executive branch.


Your Brain on Pseudo-Science (New Statesman). Coauthor Ben Eltham alerted me to Steven Poole critique of “junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry” including popularisers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer. Poole’s targets include popular writers and publishing marketing. Poole is on the mark about how to write a genre bestseller. There’s actually a deeper history here about what happens when pseudo-scientific methods diffuse from their original context into sales, marketing, and self-improvement arenas. For instance, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was originally developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder as a methodology to model human excellence: “embedded commands” came from their study of Milton H. Erickson’s clinical hypnotherapy. Go back to the original research and run your own experiments.