Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jun. 17, 2015
Published on: Nature
11 min read
Nature Index: Australasia & Pacific Islands

Australia and New Zealand continue to produce their share of high quality science, although Australia’s researchers worry that recent budget cuts bode poorly for the future.

By Wilson da Silva

THIS VAST REGION dotted with small, developing island states that stretch from the Indian Ocean to Hawaii and down to Antarctica is dominated by the giant landmass of Australia alongside New Zealand.

With great variation in landscapes, strong agricultural industries and increasing vulnerability to climate change, these countries have naturally shown a particular focus on earth and environmental sciences. At the same time, life sciences are also an area of strength, well served by government support from Australia and New Zealand, and increasingly a field in which there is cross-border collaboration.Electron beam lithography plays a part in developing quantum computers at the University of New South Wales. Credit: Paul Henderson-Kelly

With the largest populations, economies and scientific communities, Australia and New Zealand are the region's ranking leaders in the Nature Index, at 12 and 31 in the world, based on weighted fractional count (WFC) for 2014. Meanwhile, among their smaller island neighbours, where science education and infrastructure remains under-developed, Papua New Guinea has dropped from 91 to 108, Fiji sits at 123, and Tonga at 137. More data will be required to analyse any temporal trends.

Across the region there is ongoing concern about policy changes shifting the emphasis towards input for outcome — allocating research funding on the basis of anticipated impact.

The ramifications are particularly great for young researchers who some fear are being compelled to choose whether to devote themselves to applied or blue-sky research too early in their careers.

Success in specialization

Australia is the region's best Index performer, achieving small increases in both its total article count (AC), up 3% from 2013, and in its weighted fractional count (WFC), up 2%. In contrast, the region's WFC decreased by 1.6% from 2013 data in the Index.

Articles: 2782 | Weighted fractional count (WFC): 1063.85

This improvement came during a year of uncertainty over science policy, for much of which the country did not have a science minister, and government spending on research and development fell to its lowest level as a proportion of total spending since the early 1980s.

After an outcry and name-calling — including scientists being branded “precious petals” by one minister — the portfolio of minister for science was reinstated days before Christmas and a new Commonwealth Science Council, comprising leaders from science academia and industry, was formed to advise the government on science and technology. However, funding for major science infrastructure — including the world-class Australian Synchrotron relied upon for important Australian and New Zealand research in fields as diverse as biomedicine and defence — was kept on hold until well into 2015.

“We are about to take everything we have built up over a decade and crush it,” says Australian National University's Nobel Prize winning astronomer Brian Schmidt of the shortfalls for the country's science. As recently as February 2014, Schmidt had contributed to a paper published in Nature identifying the oldest-known star in the galaxy — a discovery made possible only through the infrastructure-funding scheme. After strong ongoing protest the scheme was extended in the 2015/16 budget.

To the dismay of many, however, the additional money to extend the scheme was taken from higher education research funding and is likely to affect the capacity for many university based scientists to continue using the facilities.

In this Index, all but one of the region's top institutions are Australian, but there has been some movement in their rankings. The University of Queensland has maintained its leading position with a WFC of 109, followed by Monash University (103), the University of New South Wales (UNSW; 88) and the Australian National University (ANU; 87).

Looking at the total number of publications from each institution, the University of Sydney has slipped from the top spot it held in 2013 Index data, with the ANU achieving 498, to the University of Sydney's 492 and the University of Melbourne's 478. The country's government research organization, the CSIRO, was the only non-university to reach the region's top 10.

Australia's strongest field for publication output is the life sciences, where the country ranks 9th globally. Among the country's institutions, the University of Queensland and University of Melbourne lead strongly in life sciences publications. Their focus is an example of the emerging specialization of the leading institutions in response to increasingly competitive funding regimes.

UNSW, by contrast, has established itself as a force in the physical sciences, which account for 46% of the university's publications in the Index. In particular, UNSW has established itself as a hub for quantum computing. “When you have that strength, you can then recruit the best people in the world to come here,” says dean of science, Merlin Crossley.

In chemistry, Australia's Monash University produced the highest 2014 WFC in the region, and it also ranked 100th among institutions globally for total WFC.

Crossley expresses apprehension about the direction that research and funding are taking — in particular threatened changes to the country's strong fellowship programmes. There are good government grant provisions for senior researchers, he says. “But for junior researchers, I think it is very tough.”

Electron beam lithography plays a part in developing quantum computers at the University of New South Wales.

Some of the challenges facing Australian research — uncertain funding and a loss of priority for government — echo those that affected science in New Zealand between 2010 and 2012. For this period, a ministry of science was deemed unnecessary, funding rounds were put on hold for 12 months, and changes were made to grants and funding processes that benefitted senior rather than junior researchers. Some scientists attribute New Zealand's fall in the ranking to these shifts. “The kinds of changes that you see are probably not relatable to changes that happened in the last 12 months. We're looking at the impact of the changes in our science sector that happened about five years ago,” says president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, Nicola Gaston.

New Zealand's WFC fell 19% from the 2013 level, pushing it from 28 to 31 in the global rankings. Gaston says that while government funding for New Zealand science has been increasing, the recent results suggest that the emphasis on linking input with outcomes and industry partnership undermines the pursuit of scientific excellence.

“There were a lot of concerning things in the last five years and we are now seeing the consequences of those changes,” Gaston says. The leading New Zealand institution in the Index, the University of Otago in Dunedin, is among the region's top 10 institutions and has moved up 30 places (to 406) in the global top 500. After Otago comes the University of Auckland (481), Victoria University of Wellington (687) and the University of Canterbury (890).

Thanks to strong funding from government and industry, New Zealand's greatest research strength is in the earth and environmental sciences, where the country ranks 16th globally; these fields account for 37% of the country's WFC. One of the most widely discussed recent pieces of New Zealand-led Antarctic research is an investigation of the effects of waves on sea ice published in Nature in May 2014.

Led by hydrodynamics scientist Alison Kohout at the National Institute of Water and Atmospherics, the researchers found that the impact of large waves extends further into an ice shelf than previously thought, potentially affecting stability hundreds of kilometres from the ice edge. This implies that storms and the waves generated therein may play an important role in shaping the extent of sea-ice.

Big strides for small countries

Beyond Australia and New Zealand the numbers for research publications are small, but with a similar focus on life sciences and earth and environmental sciences. Among the standouts, the government-affiliated Papua New Guinea (PNG) Institute of Medical Research contributed to two of the six Index publications linked to PNG. One paper that looked at complex genetic mechanisms behind immunity to malaria may lead to future treatments.

In Fiji, the University of the South Pacific is the only institution whose work features in this year's Index with contributions to two major papers in 2014 — one looking at sea salinity and temperature, and the other at diseased coral.

Scientists and politicians in both Australia and New Zealand are making concerted efforts to increase collaboration with research powerhouse, China. In the face of such changeable fortunes for local science, these links are likely to provide growing support for Australasia & the Pacific Islands.