research / Research reports

The Australia-China science boom

July 22 2020

In the mid-2000s Australia had delivered a China-led mining boom that continues today. Australia’s success as a producer of raw materials such as iron ore is well known. While domestic demand is negligible, in 2019 Australia’s iron ore exports totalled $96.1 billion (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2020). The partner that has made this possible is China, buying 82.2 percent of Australia’s exports. China has also been a major supplier of the capital needed to develop Australian mines (Ferguson et al., 2020). To be sure, China has not bought iron ore from Australia or invested in mines out of charity. It has done so because it is in China’s interests and the relationship is one of interdependence and mutual benefit.

Australia’s high-income status attests to its successes extending beyond being just a competitive supplier of raw materials. It also punches above its weight in the creation of scientific knowledge. Despite Australia’s population only accounting for 0.3 percent of the world’s total, last year its researchers were involved in producing 3.1 percent of global scientific publications (Scopus, 2020). Last year UTS:ACRI researchers drew attention to scientific knowledge being another space where a China boom was unfolding for Australia (Laurenceson and Zhou, 2019). This report documents the latest state of play in Australia’s partnership with China in the creation of scientific knowledge and discusses some of the most recent challenges.

Executive Summary

- In the mid-2000s Australia had delivered a China-led mining boom that continues today. Last year UTS:ACRI researchers drew attention to another China boom that was unfolding for Australia, one involving the creation of scientific knowledge. New data presented in this report show China has now overtaken the United States as Australia’s leading international partner in producing scientific publications. In 2019, the number of Australian scientific publications involving a researcher affiliated with a Chinese institution grew by 13.1 percent. In comparison, the number involving a US-affiliated researcher declined by 0.3 percent. Australia-China collaborations now comprise 16.2 percent of total Australian scientific publications, up from 3.1 percent in 2005. The US (15.5 percent), UK (11.7 percent), Germany (5.9 percent) and Canada (5.0 percent) round out Australia’s top five international partners. 

- With around one in six Australian scientific publications now involving a China-affiliated researcher, Australia is more intensively engaged with China than the US, UK and Canada at around one in 10. Australia is less engaged than some other countries such as Singapore, which has a proportion of around one in three. 

- Despite a prominent discourse around a US-China scientific and technological decoupling, last year saw 56,487 US scientific publications involve a China-affiliated researcher. This was a 6.8 percent increase on 2018, and meant the proportion of US-China research grew from 9.8 percent to 10.7 percent of total US scientific publications. 

- Australia’s partnership with China in scientific knowledge creation is apparent in both quantity and quality dimensions. Of Australian research in the top one percent of most-cited scientific publications globally, the number involving China-affiliated collaborators grew by 12.8 percent in 2018. In contrast, the number involving collaborators from Australia’s other top five research partners - the US, UK, Germany and Canada – all fell. China is now on the cusp of displacing the UK as Australia’s second most important international partner on this measure. 

- Across 28 subject areas indexed in Scopus, a database of peer-reviewed research, collaboration with China is most prominent in Materials Science, Chemical Engineering and Energy, accounting for 39.4 percent, 35.0 percent and 32.2 percent of Australian publications in these areas, respectively. Materials Science, Chemical Engineering and Energy also account for three out of the top four subject areas in which US researchers are most engaged with China. As a proportion of China’s publications in Materials Science, Chemical Engineering and Energy, collaboration with Australia features in 2.2 percent, 2.2 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively. There are five of 28 subject areas in which Australia produces more publications than China: Arts and Humanities, Health Professions, Nursing, Psychology and Undefined. 

- Publications in InCites, a different database of peer-reviewed research, are indexed across 22 subject areas. In eight of these China-affiliated researchers feature in more than half of Australia’s publications appearing in the top one percent of most-cited publications globally. This ranking is topped by Mathematics (81.3 percent), Materials Science (77.8 percent) and Chemistry (76.2 percent). In these same subject areas, Australia-affiliated collaborators are involved in 4.2 percent, 7.3 percent and 3.9 percent of China’s most-cited publications, respectively. There are three subject areas of 22 in which Australia produces more publications appearing in the top one percent of most-cited publications globally than China. These are Space Science, Clinical Medicine and Psychiatry/Psychology.

- Research collaboration with China brings risks requiring management, including those related to national security. A pertinent example is the potential for the Chinese government to influence the process of scientific discovery, as seen in its subjecting domestic COVID-19 research to vetting before publication. However, collaboration also brings benefits. And these benefits are now being threatened by allegations and headlines not well-supported by facts. Australian research institutions have been accused of engaging in research that ‘supports China’s goals, not ours’, ‘surrendering’ the nation’s research capabilities, allowing Beijing to ‘steal’ intellectual property and facilitating ‘valuable information’ being passed on to Chinese intelligence agencies. The evidence does not support such sweeping claims. Australia’s scientific successes have long involved working with international partners. And with the scale of scientific research undertaken in China much greater than in Australia, it is in Australia’s interests to engage. It is also difficult for China to misappropriate scientific knowledge from Australian researchers that has yet to be created and that is openly shared once it is. When research with international partners involves sensitive technologies and projects of a security-classified nature, or is expected to yield commercially valuable intellectual property, controls exist at the national and institutional levels to manage the risks. Moreover, these controls are regularly reviewed to ensure they remain ‘fit for purpose’ and universities have a strong track record of compliance. 

- With the Morrison government emphasising that Australia’s COVID-19 recovery will be industry-led, enabled by science and technology, the China partnership from mining to scientific knowledge creation is well-placed to feature prominently.


Professor James Laurenceson is Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney; Michael Zhou is a Project and Research Officer at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney. 

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