China research at ‘crisis point’, Australian scholars warn

No projects are funded because nobody has the expertise to appraise them, letter claims

May 18, 2024
China's Han Xu ends up falling on court during the Women's Basketball World Cup Semi Final match between Australia and China at Sydney, Australia to illustrate China research at ‘crisis point’, Australian scholars warn
Source: Steve Christo - Corbis/Corbis / Getty Images

A dearth of expertise among Australian grant reviewers has driven research on China to “crisis point”, scholars have warned.

An open letter signed by 63 China specialists says that research on Australia’s giant northern neighbour has ground to a halt just when it is “most sorely” needed. “Ensuring that research is conducted in Australian institutions about China is central to advancing our present and future national interests,” says the letter to Christina Twomey, chief research officer with the Australian Research Council (ARC).

“China and its social, economic, technological and political development are too important…to be allowed to inadvertently disappear from the ARC’s research agenda.”

None of the 421 research proposals funded last year through the Discovery Projects scheme, the ARC’s biggest annual funding stream and its key support mechanism for basic research, were about China. And while China is now the world’s top research producer by some measures, it ranks outside the top 10 collaborating countries for Discovery Projects.

China was regularly among the top five international partners in successful Discovery Projects applications until 2021. Since then, collaboration with China has fallen away sharply, reflecting patterns in other ARC schemes.

David Goodman, one of the signatories to the letter, said the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre – which he directs – had not won any ARC grants in the past two years despite having a track record of success before then. Past grants were usually the best indicator of future success, he said.

Professor Goodman said the decline in funding for research with and about China had coincided with an almost complete absence of China specialists on the ARC’s College of Experts, from which grant reviewers are drawn. He was recently reappointed to the college, making him the only one of its 318 members with China expertise.

He said that of several thousand humanities and social sciences academics in Australia, about 400 were actively researching China. The college’s composition did not reflect their prominence.

China scholars would “go somewhere else” if they did not receive “fair” access to research funds, he warned. “We’re mortgaging the future here. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore any dangers or threats that might come out of China…but we do need to understand what’s going on. There are problems in the world [and], if you want to understand them, you can’t retreat into your little burrow.”

The letter says the ARC should re-establish a discrete Asia studies panel in the college to ensure that reviewers have sufficient expertise to assess research proposals concerning the region.

“Area studies specialists [must] have understanding of language and culture in great depth, and…another discipline [such as] sociology, politics or history,” Professor Goodman said. “That takes a lot of expertise. If you’re assessing the grants, people have to have that mindset too.”

The ARC shrugged off the proposal. A spokesman said the agency sought nominations every year “from suitably qualified and experienced individuals…to ensure there is strong representation across the disciplines”.

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