Policy advice benefits from diverse research

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) says all research fields provide valued contributions to a knowledge economy and healthy society.

The Council was responding to analysis by University of Melbourne researchers showing “massive differences” in the likelihood of becoming a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) based on scientific domain.

“It is unfortunate that not all research fields receive balanced attention, funding and recognition,” ACOLA chief executive Ryan Winn says. 

“ACOLA would welcome actions and investments from governments, the research sector and academies to support this endeavour.”

ACOLA convenes Australia’s 5 Learned Academies – including the AAS, Australian Academy of the Humanities, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences – to provide “evidence-informed interdisciplinary perspectives to public debate”.

Winn says ACOLA’s work is “fundamentally based in interdisciplinary, balanced and independent advice and information sharing, so exploring, considering and valuing the contributions of different fields of research is core to our identity.”

However, because the organisation plays a convening, rather than an oversight body, it is not directly involved in academy Fellow election processes.

Winn says, when ACOLA is working on projects or submissions, it invites all 5 Learned Academies to put forward appropriate experts and also works with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to ensure the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives. 

“Working groups and panels are assembled with high attention to gender diversity, geographic insights, relevance of expertise as advised by academies, and availability as advised by the Fellows,” Winn says.

“We have frequently observed that the social aspects, applied sciences and community considerations of policy challenges, involving questions such as accessibility, trust, and equity play an equally important role in scientific questions and progress.”

Publishing in Scientometrics, University of Melbourne researchers 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.

They found top mathematicians are much more likely to be AAS Fellows than their equally distinguished peers across a number of influential disciplines, including engineering and psychology.

“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 says the disparity in Fellow appointment matters because: “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.”

Professor Malcolm Sambridge, the AAS Secretary for Physical Sciences, says the Fellowship selection committees are spread across disciplines and “there is no explicit valuing of one area over another.”

Sambridge 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.

Support cosmos today

Cosmos is a not-for-profit science newsroom that provides free access to thousands of stories, podcasts and videos every year. Help us keep it that way. Support our work today.

Please login to favourite this article.