ERA results for mathematical sciences in Australia

The 2010 ERA (Excellence in Research Australia) results were released by the ARC on 31 January 2011. Comprehensive reports are available from the ARC ERA 2010 webpage.

Forty-one tertiary institutions submitted research outputs to be evaluated. Out of these, 17 did not receive an assessment in the mathematical sciences. This means that these 17 institutions did not have enough research publications in mathematical sciences in the six-year reference period to meet the ERA minimum threshold. What is this threshold? It is a minimum of 50 research outputs (or 30 outputs in the case of pure mathematics) in the reference period: 01 January 2003 – 31 December 2008.

To understand this a little more, consider a fictional mathematics department with ten research active staff members publishing one paper each per year in a mathematical journal. This department would have 60 research outputs over the reference period and so would receive an ERA assessment. The reality in Australia is that many tertiary institutions do not have such numbers of mathematically active staff.

The evaluations were carried out within bins called Field of Research (FoR) Codes. The 2-digit FoR code 01 represents mathematical sciences as a whole, within which 4-digit FoR codes represent pure mathematics 0101, applied mathematics 0102, numerical and computational mathematics 0103, statistics 0104, mathematical physics 0105 and other mathematical sciences 0199.

The FoR-based system complicates conclusions because many mathematicians may publish in journals that are codified to other fields (e.g., bioinformaticians may publish in medical and biological journals), while many scientists who do not see themselves as mathematicians may publish in journals codified to mathematics (e.g., engineers may have published in applied mathematical journals).

In addition to the 17 institutions mentioned above, 1 received an assessment at the most macroscopic 2-digit mathematics FoR code, i.e., 01, with no assessment in any four-digit mathematics FoR code. An additional 5 institutions received an assessment in only one of the four-digit mathematical FoR codes along with an assessment at the two-digit FoR level. Only 12 institutions over all received an assessment in the FoR code 0104 (statistics).

The ARC is hurrying onto the next round of ERA assessments. ERA2012 will assess the output of staff counted on the census date 31 March 2011, whose output appeared in the reference period 1 January 2005 – 31 December 2010.

10 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this Nalini. I find it rather grim, but not surprising, that so many departments in Australia do not meet or exceed the fictional scenario you described. Were things different 15, 20, 30 years ago? Looking to the future, I also wonder whether these figures will have any effect on encouraging investment in mathematics departments down the track.

    • Thanks for your comment, Philip.

      I found some publicly available statistics that might interest you. See Figure 4 University Student/Teacher Ratios 1993 – 2002 in the report of Science teaching and research from 2005. This figure shows that student-to-staff ratios have risen in science faculties and in 2001 was much higher than that in many other OECD countries, such as UK, New Zealand and Canada. Universities appear reluctant to allow their own details to be released, but I would suggest that the number of continuing (equivalent to tenured or tenure-track) staff in Australian mathematical sciences departments has been halved since the mid-1990’s, even in institutions where the number of students taking mathematical and statistical courses have remained stable. Figure 5 in the same report shows how this may have happened: the income per (effective full-time) student load has dropped dramatically compared to real salary costs.

      Of the Universities whose research outputs in mathematical sciences were assessed in the ERA, the level of research is strong: mathematical sciences were assessed as being well above international levels, despite flaws in the ERA assessment system. I continue to suggest to government that achievement in science and technology cannot be ramped up without having active departments in mathematical sciences everywhere around the country.

      • Thanks very much for the information Nalini, and for lobbying the government to improve the standing of mathematics in our universities in Australia. On this second point, I have often wondered whether even if governments returned overall university funding to, say, 1995 levels (in real terms), whether university administrators would bother to restore mathematics departments to their former glories. I recall that after funding to universities for mathematics was improved when the Howard-Costello government handed down their (final) 2007 budget, many universities refused to pass on any extra money to mathematics departments (I believe I heard this from Phil Broadbridge, who was doing the rounds reporting on the activities of AMSI). Perhaps, then, successes with lobbying government need to be coupled with successful local lobbying of university administrators who decide how to slice up the funding pie; of course, I am sure that individual department heads are already constantly working on doing this in their own universities. The alternative – governments micro-managing universities to enforce the flow of funding to mathematics departments – might be seen as undesirable, as it would/could set a bad precedent in terms of university governance no longer being independent of the whims of the government of the day (even if the government’s intentions on a given issue are, by-and-large, seen as a good thing). Just to be sure, I’m not talking here about general funding and government regulation of universities here, but rather the decisions about the way that money is divided up amongst the faculties and what research and teaching agendas are to be made a priority at individual institutions.

        Anyway, these are some thoughts that I have had on the issue; I am not experienced or necessarily even well-read on these matters, so I welcome responses to what I have said above by anyone who wishes to do so.

  2. I’m in the middle of putting together an ARC DECRA application, and am wondering how the numbers 50 and 30 were arrived at. Are there any relevant statistics on the number of papers published per active mathematician per year in each of the FOR codes? Also, is there a straightforward mapping from MSC codes to FOR codes?

    • I haven’t seen an explanation for the minimum threshold numbers. But the decrease to 30 for pure mathematics comes from the belief that research output in this area tends to be smaller (on average) compared to other sciences.

      There is no straightforward mapping from MSC to FoR codes. Sometimes even the division into the 4-digit FoR codes within mathematical sciences doesn’t make sense. Many people who work in applied mathematics had their output assigned to pure mathematics and to other sciences, on the basis of FoR coding preassigned to journals by the ARC.

      Journals like “Archive for Rational Mechanics and Analysis” and “Calculus of Variations and Partial Differential Equations”, which are devoted to pure analysis, were assigned FoR codes in both pure and applied mathematics on the basis of keywords in the titles, like “mechanics”, while “Communications in Mathematical Physics” was assigned codes in Mathematical Physics and Quantum Physics, totally ignoring other types of mathematical output (e.g. differential geometry) in this journal.

  3. Just noticed the “Website” in my comments was wrong. Have corrected this.

  4. Great! Now the user name was wrong. Hopefully this time it works right.

  5. All you have to do is look at how “management” has mismanaged. A good example is Flinders Uni, which had no entry in maths or computer science. The “manager” during the period covered by ERA was then “promoted” to USQ, where she has since proceeded to reapeat past perfomances, although in that case a public outcry reduced things a bit.

  6. Thanks Nalini,
    Now I have some idea about the process for this award.

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