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.

ARC releases consultation paper on its peer review process

The Australian Research Council has released a consultation paper on its peer review process; the consultation period runs until October 19.  One of the proposals is to increase the weight of specialist reviewers, rather than focusing on other metrics such as track record.  This seems like a promising idea (and is supported by the AAS and FASTS, as reported in the Australian), though the proposals for encouraging qualified reviewers to become available seem a bit sketchier.

[Update. Sep 18: See also the recent PLoS Biology article “Real Lives and White Lies in Scientific Research“, by Peter Lawrence.  Further discussion on this article can be found here.  Via the Funneled Web.]

2010 ICM speakers

The list of plenary and sectional speakers for the International Congress of Mathematicians on 19-27 August, 2010 in Hyderabad, India is now available.  Among the 171 sectional speakers are two Australian-based mathematicians, Norman Dancer (for the PDE section, at U. Sydney) and Brendan McKay (for the Combinatorics section, at ANU), as well as Australian-born Mark Kisin (for Number Theory, now at U. Chicago) and former UWA student Akshay Venkatesh (also for Number Theory, now at Stanford).

Further statistics on the speakers can be found at the AustMS blog.  (Amusingly, the male/female split among the 171 sectional speakers is 147.5/23.5, due to some speaking slots being joint between two mathematicians.)

[Thanks to Cheryl Praeger for the info.]

Clay–Mahler lecture tour for 2009

The schedule for the Clay-Mahler lecture tour is now available.  This is a series of public lectures, colloquia, and specialist lectures at several across Australia by Mohammed Abouzaid, Danny Calegari, and myself, from Aug 3 – Oct 9.  They are being supported by the Clay Mathematical Institute, the Australian Mathematical Society, and the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.

Australian Research Council ERA rules may work against multi-disciplinary research

In an article by Guy Healy in the Australian today entitled “Alarm at Australian Research Council ‘restrictions’“, Peter Hall discusses the federal Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) initiative, raising the concern that the requirement that research be assigned to at most three research codes may result in multi-disciplinary work not being assessed properly.

Peter discussed another aspect of the ERA, namely the journal ranking exercise, in an earlier blog post here.

[Update, Apr 22: see also Peter’s opinion piece “Mathematics, Learning, and Survival” at the Funneled Web.]

[Update, July 15: In the article “Grant us a measure, but not yet” on the Australian today, Sen. Kim Carr responds to these concerns by stating that other measures exist to investigate the interdisciplinary merits of research within the ERA framework.]

French scientists revolt against government reforms

As reported in Nature, French academics are going on a “permanent strike” to protest a government reform proposal that would allow university administrators to have more freedom in determining how teaching, research, and service will be used to evaluate faculty, although some national safeguards and guidelines will remain.  There is also opposition to a related proposal to convert research institutions such as the CNRS into research funding agencies, with the actual research being transferred to universities.

A protest letter is being circulated here (here is the English version).  Some further news items on the strike can be found at the Funneled Web and the Guardian.

Australian Laureate Fellowships

Senator Kim Carr, the federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, has recently announced a Discovery Australian Laureate Fellowships program to attract outstanding researchers and research groups both in Australia and abroad.  This program, which is being funded with $239 million for the first five years and run by the ARC, replaces the existing Discovery Federation Fellowship scheme, with more emphasis on international talent and in funding research groups rather than individuals.  The scheme is supposed to open in mid-October, although the funding rules do not seem to be finalised yet.

Hopefully the new fellowships will attract more applicants than the Federation fellowships, especially from overseas, given that the fellowships seem to now be offering some additional research resources in addition to a good salary.

[Via the Australian and the Funneled Web.]

[Update, Oct 9: Funding rules are now online.]

Journal Ranking — the Second Incarnation

Australian academia is again in the throes of a journal ranking exercise.  We went through this last year in preparation for the previous government’s Research Quality Framework (RQF), but the new government wants to redo things for its Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). 

Again the journals must be placed into four tiers — the top 5% into tier A*, the next 15% into tier A, the next 30% into tier B, and the last 50% into tier C.  However, this time the Australian Research Council has done the ranking; they have re-ranked all the mathematical sciences journals.  This has involved

  1. a substantial reduction in the total number of journals that the ARC will currently accept (they have, of course, correspondingly reduced the number of journals we can place into bands A* and A); and
  2. the use of impact factors to rank journals in applied mathematics and statistics, and apparently also in mathematical physics.

Regarding the number of “research outlets” that the ARC is currently willing to regard as mathematical science journals, let me try to give you a sense of the scale of the changes.  According to my calculations, the new ARC list of ranked journals allocates 538 journals to pure mathematics, 211 journals to applied mathematics, 28 journals to mathematical physics, and 169 journals to statistics (including probability), making a total of 946 journals for the mathematical sciences.  However, the list produced last year allocated a total of 1369 journals to the mathematical sciences.  (These journals were a subset of those currently covered by MathSciNet.)  That is 45% more than the ARC list.  On this basis, and making some assumptions about uniformity of distribution among the four research areas, we should expect the ARC’s list to contain only two-thirds the number of journals in tiers A*, A and B as the previous list; and it does.

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Citation statistics

There is an interesting new report “Citation statistics“, jointly produced by the International Mathematical Union (IMU), International Council of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM), and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS), on the use and abuse of various citation statistics (such as impact factors and h-indices) as proxies for research quality.  (One of the authors, incidentally, is Peter Taylor from the University of Melbourne, not to be confused with Peter Taylor from the Australian Mathematics Trust.)  The press release for the report is available here. The basic message is that these statistics can supplement expert judgement of the quality of one’s research, but cannot substitute for that judgement, despite being more a “objective” metric, as they are subject to various artificial distortions.  (For instance, a typical paper in the life sciences is cited six times more frequently than one in maths or computer science, due to a variety of factors, including the different academic cultures of these disciplines.)

Of course, expert evaluation by someone knowledgeable in the subject matter is a scarce resource, and it is still very tempting to rely on these statistics in the absence of such judgment.  I once was involved in applying for a large Australian grant that was open to all sciences.  One of the reviewers commented that the proposers (who were all mathematicians) had significantly fewer publications than those from competing proposals, particularly those in the life sciences (though my own publication count of 150 or so papers was deemed “acceptable”).   While statistics such as impact factors are intended to remove some of the distortions coming from using raw publication count as a measure of research quality and output, they are still far from perfect, especially when it comes to comparisons across disciplines.  (For the record, our proposal was not funded, though this was probably a result of many other factors than the above comment.)

[Via The Funneled Web and the Australian Mathematical Society.]