In the Academy of Science, are some sciences more equal than others?

Top mathematicians are much more likely to be Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) than their equally distinguished peers across a number of influential disciplines, including engineering and psychology, new analysis by University of Melbourne researchers finds.

Publishing in Scientometrics, a peer reviewed journal for “Quantitative Aspects of the Science of Science, Communication in Science and Science Policy,” Professor Nick Haslam and Naomi Baes systematically assessed the likelihood of top Australian researchers becoming an AAS Fellow based on their scientific achievement and field.

The results reveal “massive differences” in the likelihood of Fellow appointment based on scientific domain.

However, Professor Malcolm Sambridge, the AAS Secretary for Physical Sciences, says the Fellow appointment process is rigorous and regularly reviewed, and the organisation recently introduced reforms to address bias across a range of issues including gender, geography and discipline.

Sambridge’s role is voluntary and covers fellowship matters, which he shares with Professor Bob Graham, his counterpart in biological sciences.

The process of nominating and electing Fellows “is painstaking”, Sambridge says. “It’s hard work. Because we go into many aspects of every candidate, we look at their scientific achievement and national, international profile, leadership, mentorship, promotion of science, etc. We have criteria across the gamut.”

The University of Melbourne paper shows researchers in basic sciences (such as maths, or physics) are more likely to be Fellows than those in applied and technological domains (like engineering or environmental science).

“More than 30% of top researchers in mathematics and statistics are Fellows, compared to less than 2% of top researchers working in psychological and cognitive sciences, or in agricultural science, fisheries and forestry,” the authors write. 

Haslam tells Cosmos that AAS Fellow appointment matters because it plays a role in “defining what science is in the public eye”.

“To the extent that AAS Fellows […] don’t represent all of science, then certain kinds of sciences are not being given legitimacy, or given the voice that maybe they deserve in public debates,” Haslam says.

Screenshot 2023 11 01 at 5. 13. 52 pm
Proportion of top Australian scientists in Science-Metrix research fields who are AAS Fellows / Credit: Haslam and Baes

The AAS is one of five national learned academies in Australia. Its website describes the AAS as “a not-for-profit organisation of individuals elected for their outstanding contributions to science and research and was founded on 16 February 1954 by Australian Fellows of the Royal Society of London with distinguished physicist Sir Mark Oliphant as founding President.”

The AAS remit covers 13 main scientific fields and more than 80 subdisciplines across traditional disciplines (like maths, physics, chemistry …), applied and interdisciplinary research. The committee for physiology and neuroscience includes the sub fields of psychology, clinical psychology and cognitive science, Sambridge says.

There are currently 581 fellows (living) and about 20 new AAS Fellows are elected annually based on scientific achievement, profile and leadership. 

According to the AAS, Fellows are considered “among the nation’s most distinguished scientists, elected by their peers for ground-breaking research and contributions that have had clear impact”.

Haslam and Baes write: “Australian scientists of equivalent global distinction … have different likelihoods of recognition as AAS fellows. From highest likelihood to lowest, the ranking is: (1) physical and mathematical scientists (inclusive of chemistry researchers), (2) biologists, (3) applied biological, agricultural and environmental scientists, (4) biomedical scientists (5) engineers and applied scientists and (6) behavioural and social scientists.”

Aas hierarchy
Predicted probability of AAS fellowship by scientific field as a function of the c* index / Credit: Haslam and Baes

Haslam says the relative likelihood of AAS fellowship appears to be influenced by the “old fashioned idea” of a hierarchy of sciences, proposed by French sociologist Auguste Comte in the early 1800s. Comte placed sciences along a spectrum from basic or abstract sciences to more complex ones. 

Sambridge rejects this: “If you look at our Fellowship selection committees, they’re spread across disciplines … there is no explicit valuing of one area over another.”

He says while historically there may have been more focus on physical sciences, more recently there has been more balance.

The University of Melbourne analysis compares a 2023 dataset of all AAS fellows (excluding deceased or corresponding international fellows) with Australian researchers listed in an annually updated global database of 100,000 top researchers (approximately the top 1.5% of global researchers based on career impact). 

The paper also shows high levels of science achievement and impact is a predictor for appointment, with AAS Fellows consistently exceeding the average c-index score (a metric which adjusts for differences between fields) for top Australian researchers in their field.

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