ERA Case Studies: Chemical Sciences Behavioural Responses
21 June 2013, by Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins
Frank Larkins is Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor at that university, Dean of Science and Dean of Land and Food Resources. He has published more than 200 scientific papers. His current interests are in research, education and energy policy developments. He is the author of a book entitled Australian Higher Education Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP 2011).
Proponents for the various ERA disciplines refined their responses to the 2012 assessments based on the lessons learned from the 2010 round. In this article the responses of universities with regard to the chemical sciences sub-disciplines are examined. The number of universities assessed increased modestly from 26 to 29. However, many more researchers and research outputs were evaluated in 2012 compared with 2010. By contrast, the number of units of evaluation that were assessed actually decreased from 86 to 82, but with a higher proportion being rated at or above world standard. The flexibility in assigning research outputs to discipline codes is a major factor in accounting for the very significant growth in journal articles. Overall, the response of the chemical sciences community has been rather different to that of the information and computing sciences community profiled earlier.
Physical chemistry is the dominant sub-discipline in terms of the research outputs assessed and the number of universities rated at or above world standard. The University of Queensland is the top ranked Australian university for the chemical sciences in 2012 based on the limited data available. This finding does not align with the 2013 QS rankings for chemistry, where four Australian universities, but not Queensland, are ranked in the top 50 world universities for the discipline. There are very few identifiable chemistry departments remaining in Australian Universities, but the chemical sciences sub-disciplines are strong, being predominantly embedded in other multidisciplinary entities.
The robustness of any external evaluation of performance is limited by the lack of volume data available by university and by sub-discipline. Transparency and confidence in the ERA process would be greater if the ARC was to release the volume data. The decision by government to link some research funding to the ERA quality assessments strengthens the case for fuller disclosure.
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