Amid an international debate over research sovereignty, question marks hang over the future direction of Australian research with a new analysis showing more Australian research articles acknowledge funding from China than Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

Australian researchers are listed as authors on more publications for projects funded by The National Natural Science Foundation of China than any other funder, apart from the Australian Research Council, according to analysis by the Curtin University Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI).

Levels of collaboration and international funding vary considerably around the world, meaning there is nothing intrinsically bad about the presence of international funding for research – but it is essential to understand Australia’s relative position, particularly at a time when international relations are strained and the world’s higher education institutions and funding organisations are cutting costs.

The focus of Australia’s research community is shaped by the funding available to enable them to conduct research. International collaboration has been a critical enabler of rapid progress towards development of a COVID-19 vaccine. But as Australian governments re-consider how much funding they make available for research, they must also consider whether the majority of the nation’s brightest minds are still going to be focused on the nation’s top research priorities.

Just over 15 per cent of publications produced by Australian universities acknowledged funding from China in 2019, followed by 11.2 per cent from the US and 5.3 per cent from the UK.

The COKI project is a major strategic research initiative by Curtin University drawing together more than 12 trillion pieces of information on university performance, funding and impact to unlock new insights into the performance and impact of universities.

Analysis of 2019 Crossref data shows that more publications from Australian universities were delivered from projects funded by China’s National Natural Science Foundation than Australia’s NHMRC.

Data on total funding levels from national and international sources is not easily accessible, making it necessary to analyse trends in publication rates to help understand collaboration and funding patterns.

Of the top 12 funders acknowledged in Australian research publications, there were 26,554 publications acknowledging Australian Research Council funding in 2019, compared to 13,769 from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and 13,019 from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

The next nine funders had less than 2000 acknowledgements

Collaboration with China and participation in Chinese research projects has steadily increased in recent years, from under 2 500 funder acknowledgements in 2015 (around 7000 for the Commonwealth)  to 7500 for the PRC in 2019, behind 12 000 for the Commonwealth

It is important to stress that these data relate only to acknowledgement of funding by publication and does not necessarily reflect actual funding levels, as data on actual funding levels is not currently available in the public domain.

It is also important not to misconstrue these data as an attack on China or a suggestion that Chinese investment in Australian research should diminish, or grow. Rather, it is an observation about the international nature of funding of research projects at Australian universities.

Associate Professor Lucy Montgomery, COKI project co-lead, Curtin University


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