Research and the boxing delusion

Every 4 years a solid wedge of the Australian viewing public sleepwalk through a couple of weeks while very fit people compete for lumps of metal. And it’s fantastic. Commentators get the chance to polish up absurd metaphors, everyone becomes an expert on a bunch of sports they’d never watch normally and the word athlete is extended to apply to not so fit people undertaking the equivalent of the sideshow alley duck shoot.

Then, around the same time the athletics starts and it becomes apparent the medals will slow, someone starts talking about how our plucky Aussie diggers “punch above their weight” when it comes to bringing home the gold. Actually, that’s not true – that phrase usually gets a run sometime in the boring bits of the opening ceremony.

Then someone produces the “medals per capita” table (and for the benefit of any New Zealanders out there, enjoy this example from 2012 – but less than the guys from Grenada). Insecure much?

The thing is it’s crap. We swing the puffy-gloved hands about where you’d expect when we spend about $10 million for a gold medal and $2.1 billion per year on sport (that’s more than the GDP of plenty of countries). After all, in most instances (well, maybe not in most hair salons) you get what you pay for.

It’s just as big a pile of steaming landfill when used as a lazy self-congratulatory back massage with respect to Australia and research output. (I feel much more confident calling this after reading this speech from the Chief Scientist, which is where some of the inspiration comes from). With much chest beating it gets pointed out that our 0.3% of the population produces 3% of the world’s research output. Let’s just forget that the World Bank estimated in 2010 there were still 1.22 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day, and they may have just let their academic output slide a little.

We can reassure ourselves, however, that we have 7 universities in the top 100 in the World University rankings. The thing is that when you look at the Leiden rankings, paper quantity is there but when it comes to the proportion of papers in the 10% (measured by citations), only the University of Melbourne hits the top 100. At 100.

Back to the Chief Scientist, who points out that although we are above the European average in 5 of 18 fields of research, countries we’d probably like to measure up against do better (the UK is above average in all 18 fields, and Switzerland in 17 of them).  The Chief also  refers to one survey ranking Australia 13th of 25 countries when it comes to constructing an innovation environment.

Does that sound like the story of Sly Stallone’s plucky little Italian Stallion taking on the might of Dolph’s Ivan Drago and emerging with a triumphant unexpected victory to settle the Cold War? (Yep, finally got a Rocky IV reference in!) Well, no, because you get what you pay for (there’s a few easy jokes to be made there about the former celluloid fistfighter and cosmetic surgery quality, but where’s the challenge?)

Universities Australia (while making sure to gush a little first) point out that tertiary education investment levels (as a percentage of GDP) rank 25th of 29 advanced economies (well below the OECD average, and at a time where OECD countries grew that investment by 62% (over 1995-2009) while the increase in Oz has been 17%). Given that the majority of research in Oz is driven through the university sector, that’s worth paying attention to.

The point here is not to imply that there’s no good research being done (clearly not true) or that there aren’t good researchers in Oz. The point is that there is a real need to have a deep and meaningful campfire chat about the level of investment needed to support bright researchers driving the discovery and innovation of the future.

And when you say that the research sector in Oz “punches above its weight”, you’re killing that discussion quicker than if you were to share  sausage recipes at a vegan cooking class. If you say researchers are punching above their weight, you’re really just saying they’re not getting the support they need to compete in the same division. It’s not an admirable situation. It’s a failing.

That sort of lazy self-gratification is just an excuse to avoid the issue. We’re not talking about a live cross to the badminton here. It deserves a little better .


One thought on “Research and the boxing delusion

  1. Pingback: Monkey Grant Writing Tips | The Flying PhD

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