Associate Professor Brett Neilson: A New Era

31 March 2009

In March 2009 Associate Professor Brett Neilson began a one-year appointment as Director of the Centre for Cultural Research. He succeeded Professor David Rowe, who was at the helm of CCR from March 2006. Brett talks about his future strategic directions in an interview below.

What challenges do you see in the extra responsibilities of directorship? Will it be full speed ahead with your own research activities during your period as director?

Brett: Although I’ve been at CCR since the start, sitting in the director’s seat means viewing the Centre from a different angle. There are certainly many challenges in leading a research centre of CCR’s nature and repute. Being the director means not only liaising more closely with members, researchers and staff but also interfacing more regularly with colleagues from other parts of UWS. At the same time, it also involves moving out of the university context to interact with research partners and other community members. Some aspects of CCR’s operations I would like particularly to develop include the use of digital technologies and planning for the introduction of course work for higher degree research candidates.

Continuing my own research activities is another challenge that comes with the directorship. I’m a Co-Chief-Investigator on an ARC Discovery project, entitled Culture in Transition: Creative Labour and Social Mobilities in the Asian Century. This is a large project that will conduct research across China, India and Australia in the coming three years. At this stage we are planningresearch activities in Shanghai for mid-2010. Also I’m a Co-Chief-Investigator on an ARC Linkage project about the agency of the museum sector in climate change initiatives. In addition, I’m working on a book manuscript with my co-author Sandro Mezzadra of the University of Bologna, who was a UWS Eminent Research Visitor from 2006-2008. So it’s full speed ahead with lots of juggling between research and administration, not to mention other aspects of my busy life.

There have been several refinements to CCR’s strategic research statements in recent years. In your opinion, why were these necessary?

Brett: A research centre has constantly to adapt to changing institutional and social conditions while maintaining firm lines of investigation that distinguish the work it carries out. The refinement of strategic research statements in thus a process that I expect to continue. One reason why this has been necessary at CCR is the rapid growth of the Centre. With the addition of more members, researchers and staff, there has been a multiplication of projects. One of the fascinating things about cultural research is the way it can span across different aspects of contemporary life and move with the latest issues. But there is also a need to train this wide reach to ensure depth and focus. This is why CCR has outlined the introduction of a unifying research theme — Knowledge Practices: Theory, Method, Engagement— as well as four integrative research themes — Intercultural Dialogue; Institutions, Governance, Conduct; Cultural Economy and Globalisation; and Culture, Nature, Environments.

In what fields of research do you think that CCR might increase its presence?

Brett: Research on cultural diversity, which is to say the relation of cultures to other cultures, has always been a prominent feature of CCR’s profile. One of the current challenges is to develop research that also focuses on the relations between nature and culture. This clearly relates to the research theme on Culture, Nature, Environments, but it is important to remember that this is an integrative theme that extends across the range of CCR research. I also think that cultural labour is an area in which CCR is developing a profile. The two most recent ARC Discovery awards made to CCR both engage with this issue. The point should be made, however, that CCR’s research presence rises or falls across its range of interests. CCR researchers can and should move across different fields of inquiry. The presence of the Centre, both academically and publicly, rests in foregrounding this flexible interdisciplinary approach and the ways it delivers solutions to contemporary social problems.

How do you think that CCR will be affected by the Federal Government’s Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) program?

Brett: In the past five years, the Australian university sector has experienced a rapid succession of proposed audit schemes. The RQF has come and gone and now we have ERA. This turnover should not be cause for cynicism. The ERA exercise is now a reality to which CCR will have to adapt. Having said this, I do believe the system will evolve over the next few years. For example, I expect that the journal rankings in the Humanities and Creative Arts will continue to be fine-tuned and that this will entail some shifts. While ERA may bring good news for CCR, this does not mean that we can be complacent about the system and its effects. One of the things about ERA is that it measures performance within Field of Research (FOR) codes at the university level and does not distinguish the performance of particular units, such as research centres, within a university. In terms of ERA, then, the borders between CCR and other parts of the College of Arts becomes murky. A positive effect of this may be that CCR begins to play a greater role as a ‘contact zone’ that galvanises cultural research projects across the College.