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Hang on … Australian R&D doesn’t punch above its weight

Australia punches above its weight in terms of global research, producing more than we might expect given our small population. At least … that’s the line we’ve been fed for years – but is it true? A cracking…

Australia is faced with the choice of falling behind or taking steps to keep pace with others. Marco Crupi Visual Artist

Australia punches above its weight in terms of global research, producing more than we might expect given our small population. At least … that’s the line we’ve been fed for years – but is it true?

A cracking recent paper from the office of the Chief Scientist Ian Chubb demonstrates that we are behind our main research partners, Europe and America. The citation analysis is convincing and the results argue for urgent policy action.

We have appeared to “punch above our weight” primarily because the developing world – Asia, South America, India, Africa and the former Soviet Republic – currently punches below its weight.

But times are changing and Asia is moving up. Australia is faced with the choice of falling behind or taking steps to keep pace with the growing prosperity in our region.

It is clear the Chief Scientist’s office is working hard to make sure our nation makes the right choice.

Where are we?

Why have we for so long said that we were doing so well? One important point is that we are genuinely doing well in several fields. In medicine, earth and planetary sciences and engineering we are doing better than the European average in many sub-disciplines.

I think this rings true – Australia has strong traditions in these areas. But in most other disciplines we don’t seem to be above our peers.

Overall, we sit well behind the US, Scandinavia, Britain, below Canada, and right between Germany and France. It is good to be in the company of these last two but one has to recognise non-English speaking countries are often rated a little lower in terms of citations – i.e. the lists of how often published research papers refer to other papers in their footnotes, as recorded in the Scopus databases.

In fact, the lower citations from Asian countries in part reflects the fact that many researchers in the west do not see or cite the good work that is increasingly being done in these places.

Japan for instance is a true performer in many areas but its work is less cited perhaps because of language, its remoteness and possibly the industrial nature of much of its research.

Measuring up

The conclusion is that Australia is not sitting pretty and proudly due to its unique intellectual brilliance and remarkable productivity, but is slightly behind its main research partners in Europe and the US.

The more one thinks about the data and the analyses the more excuses and explanations one can find – Canada outperforms us because it is dragged up by its proximity with the US; it shares research networks and it invests in new schemes such as the Canada Research Chairs program in a constant effort not to fall behind its superpower neighbour.

We also have a superpower in our region – China – and it will be good for us if we have policies that allow us to keep up too.

The paper is silent on whether or not citations are a good measure of research productivity. I think this is wise. Citation numbers may not be perfect but they represent one measure and a measure that can be monitored easily every year - so it’s a useful one.

We can make excuses about citations and call on our special circumstances but we really can’t deny the fact the mantra that we have “punched above our weight” has been going on for too long and could lead to dangerous complacency.

Strength training

The paper does make some comments on policy. It suggests that knowing and investing in our strengths is a good plan. I think this is right but it needs explanation.

One has to go back and ask several questions:

  • Why do we care about our performance at all?
  • Why do we even do research when we will only ever do a few percent of the world’s research?
  • Couldn’t we just save our money and adopt the 97% or so produced by others?
  • Why is investing in strength a good idea?
  • Shouldn’t we invest in weak – but important – areas and bring them up to par?

The idea that we could sit back and rapidly adopt the research of others appeals to some people but I don’t think it has ever been done successfully. The reason is simple.

New technology is inherently sophisticated and complex. If you don’t have a rich research and educational sector training the next generation by engaging with world-class research you just don’t have enough people or enough infrastructure or the right attitude to adopt and develop the research of others.

Australia is a rapid adopter and we always will avail ourselves of the 97% of research done by others; but in order to do this effectively we need our own research capacity. We also need capacity if we are to share in and benefit from collaborative projects with our partners.

It is also gratifying that, although our 3% contribution sounds small, there have been some spectacular contributions – such as Ian Frazer’s papilloma virus vaccine – and adopting them rapidly will save lives as well as money.

Things are not bad here but when one looks at the table one can’t help hoping we adopt the approaches of countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight.

The second question about investing in strengths or weaknesses is also interesting. We will never have enough resources to fund all our ideas so we do need to prioritise.

There may be a case for bringing some areas up to speed – space science comes to mind. Australia is unusual in not having a space program and it is likely that satellite communications at least will become increasingly important, so arguably that’s an area where we should build.

There have been some attempts to do this. But, in general, the plan of investing in strength is the right one. Investing in strengths is inspirational and having a few areas – as many as possible - where we are world-class allows us to engage with the world.

The 21st century will be the Asian Century but it will also be a time when science and technology continues to deliver wealth and enrich our lives.

Knowing where we stand in the world is the first step towards increasing our engagement and contribution.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    The Chief Scientist's paper is on 'Benchmarking Australian science performance', not research performance as the opening line of this piece implies. From the results of the excellence in research for Australia assessments in 2012 it seems that some areas of humanities and social sciences are weak, which raises similar questions about whether this argues for increasing or withdrawing effort from weaker areas.

    The argument for investing research resources selectively apply similarly in the empirical sciences and humanities and social sciences, altho the argument isn't so pressing in the humanities and social sciences because research in the humanities and social sciences is much cheaper than in the empirical sciences.

    The arguments for concentrating research resources are rather different in each discipline. It is weak in many empirical sciences and not at all convincing in much of the humanities and social sciences.

    1. Dr John Lamp

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I found Chubb's paper completely unconvincing, and frankly, disappointing in its some reliance on citations.

      Firstly this measure is well known to be misleading, secondly, it only measures author use and impact of research, thirdly, most citation indices are incomplete in their coverage, and if you combine different ones, you may extend your reach but you almost certainly get double (or triple counting, depending on how many indices you amalgamate) and finally, it only measures the dissemination of research via academic papers - it does not measure other forms of research dissemination such as direct consultation, book publication, blogs, public speaking, patents arising and so forth.

      I will be generous and suppose someone like our Chief Scientist must have been badly advised.

    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Dr John Lamp

      Yes, citations have all those weaknesses and others depending on the method used, which is not entirely clear from West's paper. But surely international comparisons are important and citations are the best single measure for international comparisons of the scientific merit of most empirical disciplines. No one, least of all Chubb, is arguing that citation analyses should drive decisions, merely that they are useful to inform judgements.

  2. Trevor Kerr


    One other measure of Australia's research "effort" may the turnout of PhDs. Is that data catalogued anywhere?
    I've just sat in at a Senate hearing for their inquiry into antibiotic resistance. A couple of witnesses noted that we should be investing more into basic research, some of which has in the past led to quantum leaps in illness prevention & treatment.
    So, does anyone keep up with ongoing research, in microbiology, pharmacy, whatever, that could be picked and developed for new antimicrobials…

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  3. Tim Scanlon


    One point I'd like to make is that Australian research is not necessarily going to be cited as often as European or US research, not because of anything other than the research is Australian.

    From personal experience (yes, an anecdote, sorry, hopefully others can comment if they too have had this problem) I have noted that research will be rejected from international journals (read US and European) because they don't care for research done in Australia. They want to know what relevance it has to, in my case, the US, despite the fact that the research is of value to all in that field. I know this is less the case in some fields, like medicine, but it is clear that Australia's profile is not just one of publishing science but being published internationally and not blocked from doing so.

  4. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    Once day our lawyer/economist/business dominated politicians will grow a brain and realize that the prosperity of this nation is not dependent on sporting prowess, on construction industry Ponzi schemes, on fleeting mining booms and financial services etc.

    This country's future prosperity can only depend on science and technology, particularly biological and medical technology. This is the only economic sector that Australia has any long term hope of competing on in the global market and the ONLY…

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    1. Trevor Kerr


      In reply to Greg Boyles

      Science rooms (more than one?), theatre, music AND sports? Sounds pretty good for a government school. Like, Melbourne High or Balwyn High (don't know the equivalents elsewhere)?

    2. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Trevor Kerr

      Sorry it is not a government school so the science class rooms are no doubt exceptional compared to the government schools in my area.

      As for sporting comps, there is nothing unusual about this as most schools, government or otherwise, have these in one form or another.

      Theater productions, well I can remember Fawkner High School puting on a star wars production when I was attending there. So I wouldn't think that they are all that unusual, even for government schools, these days.

      Even lowly Lalor Secondary College has a music room and music classes so it would be that surprising if even it puts on some sort of concert for the more interested and dedicated parents and students.

      But all schools seem to be more or less equal in the degree to which they 'celebrate' and award excellence in science beyond the class room.

  5. Adam Butler

    Engineer and Data Analyst

    The moment people start to rely in any way shape or form on citation "analysis" they immediately tread down a golden path laced with distractions and misguided "metrics".

    As eluded to in some of the commentary, low cites does not imply low quality, low "strength" or any such thing. A low citation number is simply reflection of the market psychology that exists in scientific endeavour, e.g. if this paper is well cited is must be good so I'll cite it in my paper and jump on the bandwagon.


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