Australia’s performance in ‘research’

The Chief Scientist released an occasional paper earlier this week that sets out Australia’s ‘performance’ in scientific research, measured by citation rate — this is, the number of times a given paper has been cited by later researchers. The assumption is that a citation means that a paper has been read, and thought important enough to have affected the way the later research was conducted, or the way the later paper was written. Lots of citations ought to mean that you can’t do research in a given area without taking into account what X has published. The reality is, of course, a little less crisp.

Why should the Chief Scientist be interested? The paper suggests that ‘Continuing the strengthen Australian science requires objective assessment of our performance relative to our key partners’. Further,’it is important to maintain a strong overall investment in science, and to invest selectively in priority areas of recognised strength’. A body called the Australian Research Committee ‘is currently developing a framework to set research priorities for Australia’.

The argument is that scientific research today is a form of ‘global collaboration’; about half of published Australian scientific research is internationally co-authored. To go on being a desirable co-author means that Australian scientists must be up there with the best. On the evidence, says the Chief Scientist’s paper, that isn’t the case. The USA and the European Union represent the sources of scientific power in the world, and we punch at a little below the European average.

Where should we be? Why should we be there? I started to grapple with these questions thirty years ago, and they are not easy to answer. Some of the countries we like to compare ourselves with have pharmaceutical, aerospace and IT industries that are highly research-intensive, with both government and private funding supporting a large and successful research endeavour. That is not the case in Australia, where government funding, allocated largely through competitive schemes of various kinds, is the main source of research support.

Canada is not unlike Australia, but its closeness to the USA means that Canadian researchers participate in what is a ‘North American’ research context. Given what I know about the research world, where Australia now seems to be looks about right. In the early days of the ARC we used to say that our 2 per cent of the world’s research gave us access, through international collaboration, to the other 98 per cent. I am told that today it is our 4 per cent that gives us access to the other 96 per cent, and if the increase is true, then plainly we are doing better than in the past.

The point of all this number-crunching is money. Everyone in the research business wants more of it, and the Chief Scientist needs to persuade government to provide it. The paper doesn’t greatly help, though, because lifting our game is the point, then that could come easily by not funding areas where our citation rates are weak. Ah, you say, but we need to be good in those areas too, so they need more money. And that is the problem: as with schools, do you put money where activity is already highly productive, or where it is needs to be lifted?

When contacted by the Canberra Times the Chief Scientist seemed to have another solution. According to the Times, ‘he did not want to see humanities funding cut completely, but funding priorities and criteria would have to be assessed if the quality of scientific papers was to improve’.

Wow! How that remark takes me back. All through my time in the research funding and research policy domain, which spanned thirty years, I came across scientists who could see no point in funding the humanities. One chemist, who shall remain nameless, once put to me that we should simply stop funding classical archeology. Interesting stuff, no doubt, and it might be rather fun to go to a dig, but did it really matter? I put to him that understanding our past was, all things considered, a part of understanding our present, and the society we had produced, which liked to fund research. Besides, Australia had been ranked third or fourth in the world in classical archeology throughout the 20th century, and I couldn’t say the same about chemistry.

Humanities research doesn’t lend itself easily to papers or to number-crunching, so you can’t subject its output to the same kind of interrogation that the present Chief Scientist paper offers. I could argue, and have done in the past, that the great flowering of research in the humanities and social sciences since the second world war has helped to produce modern Australian society, which is very different to its counterpart in the 1940s and 1950s, when I grew up.

In fact, modern Western society, with all its benefits and weaknesses, is the joint outcome of research in all its forms, none more important than the other, supported by a growth in productivity that the research helped to generate, and a recognition of the great importance of finding out about things that is one of the humanities’ greatest gifts to us all.


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