It’s not just a lack of funding keeping social science research back. Stakeholders spoke about the multiple factors limiting growth in social science research.
Since 2010, the triennial Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) process has assessed and benchmarked the quality of Australian research across universities and disciplines. This has been useful for identifying areas of comparative strength and weakness. However, during the consultations some stakeholders noted that the dual-assessment methodologies, citation-based for STEM and peer-reviewed primarily for the HASS disciplines, were potentially problematic, despite an expert Review of ERA finding that the dual methodologies were appropriate and necessary given disciplinary differences in publication practices.
As the review notes, since 2010 the number of STEM disciplines in citation-based fields rated 5 (i.e., ‘above world standard’) has increased at a faster rate than peer-review HASS disciplines.
While the overall quality of Australian STEM research could be improving rapidly relative to the rest of the world, and to humanities and social science research in Australia, it is equally possible that some of the difference could be due to changes in the global research environment and the method of assessment. Most notably, the rapid global increase in the number publications, many uncited, could see Australian research pulling away from a changing world standard. Stakeholders and the ERA Review also considered that citation-based assessments are potentially more amenable to optimisation strategies than assessments by peer-review.
Whatever the case, ERA ratings (and other rating systems) drive perceptions, funding allocations, institutional strategy and – to an extent – student decisions. Resolving this question and developing solutions is a critical issue for the Social Sciences as well as the Humanities and Arts disciplines.
The Australian Government invested a record $12 billion dollars in R&D in 2020-21. 29% of this was allocated directly to universities in the form of research block grants and research training support; 24% to the CSIRO and other government research agencies; 23% to private industry through the R&D tax incentive; 13% to health and medical research through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Medical Research Future Fund; 8% to the Australian Research Council (ARC); and 4% to research infrastructure and collaboration (DISER 2021).
Within this mix, the attention of university social science researchers is focused primarily on the ARC. These grant programs are highly competitive (average success rates lie below 20%; ARC, 2021; although equivalent for social science and STEM applicants), and time-intensive in both the application and review stages.
While competitive peer-review processes are an equitable and rigorous means of allocating limited funds, it does mean that thousands of highly trained individuals–many employed specifically as researchers–spend a significant proportion of their time competing for the funding necessary to do their work at full capacity. Without the alternative funding streams available to other disciplines, particularly the health and medical sciences, this limited funding has a disproportionate impact on the productivity of research in the social sciences.
Social science research in many disciplines is primarily undertaken by individuals or small teams working in relative isolation. While this is not inherently problematic, it does present challenges, particularly in comparison to research fields in the science and technology domains that are moving towards larger scale projects.
Some of the potential consequences of small-team culture in the social sciences (Figure 24) include:
- Careers. Researchers working individually or in small teams are likely to produce a smaller number of research outputs.
- Faculties. Smaller teams produce fewer research grant applications; senior researchers working alone may have less time available to train PhD students and mentor post-doctoral researchers.
- Universities. Since social science schools tend to report less research income, university administrations often prioritise STEM and Health disciplines with discretionary funding and with support for commercialisation activities.
- Whole sector. Ultimately, the small-team culture contributes to lost opportunities to pursue more social science research, with costs for the sector, and Australia. n
Social science researchers acknowledge a number of shortcomings when it comes to research infrastructure:
- A soft spot for soft infrastructure. Social science researchers struggle to imagine themselves utilising big, expensive pieces of physical infrastructure (e.g., satellites, computer labs, photogrammetry).
- Digital and data skills. Social science research is due for a redesign of research training programs, to take even more advantage of big data and other opportunities from new digital technologies.
It’s no surprise then, that social science research is often overlooked in research infrastructure plans or fails to be included in lists of national critical infrastructure.
Unintended consequences of a small-team culture