University researchers generate productivity boom

The nation’s university researchers have created a research productivity boom, more than doubling their research output compared to a decade ago.

An analysis by academics at the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group found that the total number of research reports by Australian academics increased from 45,560 in 2006 to 96,565 in 2016 – a rise of 112%.

The reports included peer-reviewed journal articles as well as other research documents such as conference papers, book chapters, datasets and software.

Over the same 10-year period, the number of academics employed in Australian universities increased from 42,000 to 56,000, a jump of 33%.

But with universities pushing to hire more teaching-only staff, it is uncertain whether all of the academics in 2016 were contributing to their universities’ research efforts.

In a submission to a federal government inquiry, the IRU says its analysis found the productivity increase for Australia outstripped any rises in comparable countries during that decade.

These included the United Kingdom whose academics recorded a 49% increase in research outcomes, the United States with a 30% rise, and an overall total average boost among researchers across the OECD countries of 39%.

But the study also found that China’s published research output had jumped at one of the world’s fastest rates, with a 246% recorded increase in the same 10-year time frame.

The IRU team included the analysis as part of a submission to a House of Representatives’ inquiry into funding of the nation’s research effort. A parliamentary committee of the House is looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of Australian government funding for research.

In May, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham asked the House Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training to “examine the efficiency, effectiveness and coherency of Australian government funding for research”.

The committee is focusing on federally funded research agencies, their funding mechanisms, and university collaborative research.

The inquiry does not include the National Health and Medical Research Council’s funding programme, nor non-federal research funding sources.

The IRU academics drew on data from the Web of Science, a publications and citation indexing database that holds comprehensive information about academic reporting around the world.

The team noted that Australia is now responsible for about 4% of the world’s total scientific output listed on the web, despite having only 0.3% of the global population and 1.6% of its gross domestic product.

The IRU report says the number of citations for Australian researchers has also markedly increased over the past decade, as well as their output. In 2006, Australian publications were cited on average 17% more than other publications in their field when compared to the rest of the world. Since then the figure has more than doubled, with Australian researchers now 37% more likely to be cited than the global average.

“This puts Australia well above the OECD average and on par with researchers from other highly cited nations such as the UK (which has 141% more citations than the global average) and the US (which has 130% more citations than the global average),” the report says.

The increase in publishing productivity and high citation occurred during a period when a dual funding system was implemented in Australia. This involved the federal government allocating open block grants for universities and ‘directed competitive grants’ for projects.

“Over the period, directed grants from government and investment in research from business and other research users increased at a far greater rate than block grants,” the report says.

It says there is no question that the Commonwealth Grant Scheme does, and should continue to, provide time for academic staff to conduct research. Other government grants, however, do not make provision for academics to devote time to their research.

“The figures provide further evidence that Australia’s research funding system, together with the universities, encouraged high productivity and highly cited research,” it says.

Conor King, executive director of the IRU group, said Australian researchers were world class, given the number of their publications and how highly they were regarded.

“The trends in Australia’s research performance are overwhelmingly positive. They point towards greater productivity, impact and support for end-user research. It has occurred despite minimal increases to government block grants for research,” King said.

But he said the complex Australian Research Council grant application process should be simplified. It was clear, however, that wholesale changes to the dual funding system were not warranted on productivity grounds.