China to eclipse US as Australia’s pre-eminent research collaborator

New analysis charts 40-fold increase in quantity of co-authored papers and 100-fold surge in quality

July 27, 2019
Suzhou, Gate to the East

China is on the verge of becoming Australia’s most prominent research partner after journal articles co-written by academics in the two countries surged in quantity and quality.

An analysis has concluded that China will this year overtake the US in the production of scientific papers co-authored with Australian researchers. Rather than a change of guard, the milestone heralds the emergence of a “complementary” partner focused largely on different scientific fields, it suggests.

However, the analysis, by the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney, warns that the partnership could be undermined by security and ethical concerns, funding pressures on Australian universities and restrictions on academic freedom in China.

Despite the growing importance of collaboration with China, the paper says, “the future trajectory is uncertain”.

ACRI’s acting director, James Laurenceson, who led the analysis, said universities’ reliance on international tuition fees was a major source of uncertainty. “To work with the best in the world, you’ve got to have researchers that measure up,” he explained.

“We’ve been able to afford salaries for leading researchers largely by using student income to cross-subsidise [their] work. We’ve had big increases in university revenues driven by international students, particularly Chinese students. If those numbers levelled off or went into reverse, that game would be up.”

The paper also highlights worries that Australian academics working with China could inadvertently leak military secrets. Although Australian universities have complied with legislation against the export of defence technologies, the paper notes, the legislation does not prevent foreign academics and doctoral students from learning about these technologies while they are in Australia.

The ACRI paper says collaboration could also be undermined by the “deteriorating conditions for academic inquiry in China”, exemplified in web censorship and the Chinese Communist Party’s “intensifying ideological and political control” of universities.

The paper adds that China is struggling to retain its own top researchers even despite its Thousand Talents Plan and other “ambitious” efforts to entice expatriate academics back home.

The paper says the surge in collaboration with China has not occurred at the US’ expense, as the proportion of Australian papers with US co-authors grew from about 2,400 articles in 1998 – 11 per cent of Australia’s total output – to 11,800, or 16 per cent in 2018.

But papers co-written with Chinese academics multiplied from about 250 in 1998 to 10,700 last year, increasing their share of Australian output from 1 per cent to 15 per cent. China overtook the UK in 2017 to become Australia’s second most important international collaborator, and it is on track to surpass the US this year.

According to the ACRI analysis, 389 Chinese-Australian papers were among the most cited 1 per cent of articles in their fields in 2018, up from just four in 1998. On this measure, China ranks as Australia’s fourth most important partner for high-quality research and is “on the cusp” of beating Germany into third place.

The paper says China is not simply supplanting the US as Australia’s key research partner. It says joint research with China occurs largely in fields in which Australia does not collaborate much with the US, areas such as materials science, engineering, computer science and maths.

Nicholas Fisk, deputy vice-chancellor for research at UNSW Sydney, said similar trends were evident at his university.

Professor Fisk added that UNSW now earned as much from China as it did from the US in research contracts and industry grants. “We’re in the same time zone,” he said. “They give us huge intellectual capital, resources and a market for academic commerce.”

He said research was international, and Australia’s focus was undergoing “a shift from the old world to the new world”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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