Environmental Science and ARC Future Fellowships

Environmental Science is one if Australia’s leading research areas. It is a field with Australia’s highest representation of highly-cited authors. And for all the foibles of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) ratings, it is the field with the most universities “well above world standard” (ERA 2018).

Australia’s environment is clearly important – to things like our national identity, our health and wellbeing, and some of our main industries (e.g., agriculture, tourism). The state of Australia’s environment, however, is poor.

“Environmental change” is also recognised as a national “Science and Research Priority” by the Australian government.

So given that background, you might expect that the Australian Research Council (ARC) would prioritize funding for Environmental Science.

Of the 100 ARC Future Fellowships recently awarded, only one was in the area of Environmental Science (congratulations to Vanessa Adams – excellent stuff). This is no anomaly. In the last 5 years, out of more than 500 Future Fellowships awarded, only 12 have been in the area of Environmental Science.

Plot the number of Future Fellowships versus the number of universities judged to be “well-above world standard” and there are some clear outliers.

The number of ARC Future Fellowships awarded in different disciplines between 2018 and 2022 versus the number of Australian universities judged to be well above world (ERA 2018).

On the positive side, Engineering seems to be getting a very large share of the Fellowships. The reason for this is unclear, but it seems to be an ARC priority.

Biological Sciences also might seem disproportionately over-represented. Countering that view, Medical and Health Sciences is very much lower. The latter is expected since the ARC does not fund “medical research”, so many of Australia’s large population of top medical researchers are likely applying for (and being awarded) Future Fellowships in areas of Biological Sciences.

Mathematical Sciences and Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences are also somewhat under-represented.

But the biggest outlier? Environmental Sciences. Twenty one Australian universities were rated as being well above world standard in 2018 by the ARC, yet this field has only received 12 Future Fellowships in the 5 years since then. I have no idea why, but it seems very odd.


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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