Ecology and Environmental Sciences star in ERA15

The results of the latest assessment of research excellence in Australia have been released. Now, every university will spin the results to suit their own purpose*. While we can leave universities to report their results so they appear to shine in the best possible light, it would be interesting to see how different research fields performed.

Which are Australia’s strongest research fields? The broad research fields with the most universities rated above world standard are “Medical and Health Sciences” and “Environmental Science”.


The number of Australian universities “above” or “well above” world standard as rated by the Excellence in Research for Australia process in 2015 for each of the 22 broad research fields.

Following them are “Chemical Sciences”, “Biological Sciences”, and “Engineering”, with “Mathematical Sciences”, “Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences”, and “History and Archaeology” not far behind.

Within the two strong fields in which I am involved (Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences), the strongest areas are “Environmental Science and Management” and “Ecology”. Somewhat perversely, “Ecological Applications” is separated from “Ecology” – many of the publications assigned to one during the ERA process could just have easily be assigned to the other.  However, it is clear that Environmental Sciences and Ecology are two of Australia’s strongest research fields.


The number of Australian universities “above” or “well above” world standard as assessed by the Excellence in Research for Australia process in 2015 for the disciplines within the Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences fields.

This strength of Environmental Sciences and Ecology in Australia is also reflected in Australia’s representation in the list of the most highly-cited authors in the Thomson-Reuters list, something I’ve noted previously.


The proportion of the world’s most highly-cited scientists within each of Thomson-Reuters’ 21 research categories who have their primary affiliation in Australia. The field of Environment/Ecology tops the list for Australia – approximately 1 in 12 of the world’s most highly-cited ecologists/environmental scientists are Australian.

Some other interesting data exist in ERA15, such as total research funding (see below). With that much research funding, you’d hope medical research in Australia would perform well!

But in terms of bang for buck, it is hard to go past some other fields, such as mathematics, environmental sciences and history.


Research funding to different fields for the three years 2011-2013 as reported for ERA15. Ecology makes up about 15% of the research income in Biological Sciences – a touch under $50 million annually.

So, while the Environmental Sciences and Ecology are not the most heavily funded, they are two of Australia’s strongest research fields. Not only that, this research, conducted across many of Australia’s universities, has a large impact, helping manage Australia’s and the world’s environment more efficiently.

So people, let’s recognize the excellence of environmental and ecological research that occurs across Australia!

* Footnote: ANU even devised their own method for ranking institutions, and you won’t be surprised to know that (judged by their own criteria) ANU won. That outcome was parroted by Campus Review, which failed to note that at least one other university out-performed ANU on at least one of their criteria (the proportion of broad research fields rated above word standard). Universities love playing the ranking game, but I’m surprised a news outlet would publish claims without checking them.


About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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3 Responses to Ecology and Environmental Sciences star in ERA15

  1. My thought is always that research income is not what counts (it’s just an input measure) – it is research output (ideas, pioneering knowledge, relevance, and scholarly ‘outputs’).
    I had no idea there was such a large percentage of social scientists in Australia. Most don’t really need large sums of money of course, so we are ‘cheap’ per unit of output.
    The positive result of my own group’s high performance in the ERA is more approval from up the chain of command (always useful) – I don’t think it will bring us more funding or international attention. We are also able to rest on our laurels for at least a couple of weeks before getting back into it!

  2. I am 99% sure that Category 3 in HERDC income includes bequests and the like. The Category 3 income for medicine is large: 2015/ERA_2015_National_Report/ERA2015_Section2.pdf#page=10


  3. Jane Catford says:

    Thanks for examining and sharing all of this, Mick. Does the funding by field include donations from charities etc? I suspect research fields could differ even more strongly when it comes to that funding stream, e.g. Cancer research vs archaeology.

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