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ERA Case Studies: Chemical Sciences Behavioural Responses

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.

Download full case study (pdf).

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June 24th, 2013 at 4:12pm
Bill Skinner (UniSA)
Hi Frank
A very understandable change in 2012 relative to 2013. You correctly point out the change in rules regarding the allocation of published output to disciplines of choice, as a key influence on institution strategy. However, there are a couple of things tied up in this.

1) There was a condition that was supposed to make sure that a threshold percentage of the particular publication output was actually in that discipline. I can well understand that there was little or no capacity within the ERA process to check this was the case for each article, and I'm sure some bending of the rule was undertaken.
2) In 2010, because of the "shoe-horning" of journals into disciplines, many high quality publications were lost to the system because of thresholds not being met. This was certainly true for us here at UniSA. For example, we had quite a few 0914 Resource Engineering-related papers in high-ranked 0404 Geochemistry journals in 2010. As far as I'm aware, there are no stats for below threshold outputs, or are there?
3) Within an institution, there are also rivalries which, due to journal-discipline assignments in 2010, enabled some disciplines to rank higher than expected - to the detriment of otherwise accepted leading disciplines. Some of these dropped in the 2012 rankings.
4) Lastly, 2010 saw a few low-performing surprises. In many of these cases, the institution basically let things fall where they may, particularly around multi-coded outputs. They didn't make the same mistake twice.

Notwithstanding all this, transparency is the key. I, for one, would like to see two iterations of ERA with exactly the same rules. In a perfect world, it would be a boon to Govt if they knew where in institutions the high-ranked work was being done - at the research unit level.

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July 12th, 2013 at 4:08pm
Bill Skinner (UniSA)
I would add another interesting and somewhat irresponsible behaviour.

In looking at detail on some disciplines (I haven't the time to manually sift data that is in an unhelpful form), I've noticed quite a few institutions that received significant ARC funding in a specific discipline (2005-2010), that did not have that discipline assessed!

If the ARC were to take this seriously, it would direct the panels to not award any further funding to these institutions under the FoR codes assigned until there is adequate explanation for the lack of outcomes.
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