Melbourne pips Sydney as Australia's research hotspot

27 October 2016

Annabel McGilvray

CQC2T

The UNSW Atom and Magnetic Laboratory is part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication. 

Australia's two largest cities strive to attract the best researchers and produce science that makes a difference.

INTERACTIVE: explore the research connections in Melbourne & Sydney

There has long been a gentle rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. People will argue over which has better weather, bars and restaurants. Scientific superiority is also a hotly contested debate.

Melbourne has been home to more Nobel Prize winners, but Sydney can lay claim to the team that crafted the mirrors that first detected gravitational waves. Melbourne boasts the Australian Synchrotron, but Sydney now has a nanoscience hub. The list goes on.

So what are the differences in their publishing records? The Nature Index allows us to measure variations in high-quality natural science output and collaborations, and provides evidence of where Sydney and Melbourne diverge. Melbourne’s research strength is in chemistry and the life sciences. In Sydney, the physical sciences dominate, with the life sciences second. Melbourne had more institutions publishing high-quality natural science research in 2015: 83, compared to Sydney’s 50. Melbourne also has a greater number of local collaborations. In fact, the city was ranked as one of the 10 centres around the world with the most intra-city research partnerships in 2015. However, when Sydney’s research groups establish a collaborative link within the city, those partnerships, on average, contribute more to journals in the index than Melbourne’s local partnerships.

Science doesn’t play favourites; so what are the reasons behind these differences?

MELBOURNE

2015 WEIGHTED FRACTIONAL COUNT: 304.78

RESEARCH PARTNERSHIPS in 2015: 209

RESEARCH FUNDING 2011-2014:* AU $1,802m

If you were plotting the biomedical research hub of Australia, you would begin on Royal Parade, in the central Melbourne area of Parkville. Within a radius of less than 250 metres there are three of the country’s leading medical research institutes. Venture as far as 500 metres and you come across eight more, including a pair of universities and two leading public hospitals.

It’s a critical mass of research activity that helped Australia’s second most populous city generate a significant lead over its northern rival in high-quality science output in 2015. In that year, 83 Melbourne institutions contributed to 1,748 publications in the journals that are part of the index. The greatest contribution was in chemistry and the life sciences, driven largely by the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

One of the city’s major life science achievements last year included the long-sought structural analysis of the protein, plasmepsin V, which confirmed its role as the gatekeeper that lets the malaria parasite grow inside human red blood cells. The research, published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, was an all-Melbourne affair, led by researchers at the city’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), many of whom have joint appointments at the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with scientists at La Trobe University. Funding from the Wellcome Trust is helping the team develop anti-malarial drugs that target plasmepsin V. One of the project leaders, WEHI’s Justin Boddey, says Melbourne is a hub of world-leading malaria research that has built up through decades.

Over the years Melbourne has been home for some of Australia’s science heavyweights including Nobel Prize winners, MacFarlane Burnet and Peter Doherty. Those two, and many others have been centred at WEHI and the University of Melbourne, says local immunologist, Joseph Trapani. “Once you have critical mass, then you have a virtuous cycle. It’s attracting the brightest students and it is also bringing back researchers who may be overseas doing postdocs.”

WEHI sits at the centre of what’s widely known as the ‘Parkville precinct’ and is credited by many as being the reason the life sciences are so strong in Melbourne’s research landscape.

Established in 1915 and, like most of the Parkville institutes, affiliated with the University of Melbourne, the WEHI is recognized internationally for its work in malaria, cancer, immunology and increasingly, bioinformatics. Under the leadership of directors such as Burnet, Gustav Nossal, and now Doug Hilton, and host to some of the country’s top medical research infrastructure, it has become a drawcard for Australia’s best young aspiring medical scientists.

Trapani is executive director of cancer research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Peter Mac), which recently relocated to be within the new Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) and is part of the informal Parkville hub.

He says the geography of Melbourne’s research community complements the city’s science strengths as well as its collaborations. The VCCC building is down the road from WEHI - which is also affiliated with the new centre - and the two institutions often collaborate. Trapani also says many Melbourne collaborations are driven by individuals rather than institutions, as in Sydney, which may explain the large number of separate collaborations in the city.

However, when considering collaborations, increasingly more importance is placed on the need to access the research infrastructure and skills required for particular projects.

One recent joint project arose, for example, thanks to WEHI’s great strength in bioinformatics - the analysis and interpretation of biological data on a large scale. When Peter Mac researchers wanted to establish a specific cancer bioinformatics capability, they approached the WEHI director, Doug Hilton, and suggested the organizations work together. Peter Mac recruited WEHI’s Anthony Papenfuss who now works across the two institutions, connecting the clinical researchers of Peter Mac to WEHI’s mathematical and software expertise, and the computing power of its bioinformatics unit.

Among the research coming out of this collaboration has been the analysis of the structure and function of the massive extra chromosomes that characterize some rare cancers, including liposarcomas.

“It’s win–win because they [WEHI] get access to the clinical data which they crunch informatically, and we get the informatics expertise,” Trapani says. “It has enabled us to generate genomic data and clinical data and learn how to find the important pearls of information that you need.”

SYDNEY

2015 WFC: 222.78

RESEARCH PARTNERSHIPS IN 2015: 64

*RESEARCH FUNDING 2011–2014 : $1,288m

An ecosystem is beginning to build around the physical sciences in Sydney. Charismatic discipline leaders run new labs equipped with the latest facilities and, beyond campus borders, the beginnings of what may become a lucrative industry sector is emerging. Astrophysics, photonics and quantum computing are now considered among the city’s science strengths.

In 2015, Sydney-based research groups contributed to 738 publications related to the physical sciences in the index. Even when adjusted for the size of the contribution and the discipline, it is clear that the greatest amount of high-quality research in the harbour city is being produced by the physical sciences. Life sciences research comes in second, followed by chemistry and Earth and environmental sciences. The opening of new Sydney labs in 2016 is likely to bring growth in the quantity and quality of the city’s physical sciences research in coming years. The new facilities include a laboratory complex, recently opened by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The complex is part of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T). The other newcomer is the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, a $150 million facility at the University of Sydney’s Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology(AINST).

These most recent launches will strengthen the connection between the city’s two top universities. Based on their contribution to articles published in journals included in the index, UNSW and the University of Sydney had the strongest connection of any two institutions in Sydney last year, driven by physical sciences research. Tim Bedding, head of the University of Sydney’s School of Physics, says while infrastructure is important, his school’s publication performance (see graphic) is due to the strength and diversity of its research portfolio and the science leaders driving it. He points to teams working on photonics, astrophysics,biophysics, quantum computing, high-energy physics and the physics of sustainability, among other fields. “It has been a conscious decision to try to attract good researchers and support them to build up big groups that can make an impact,” Bedding says.

Ben Eggleton is one such research leader. He heads AINST’s Photonic Circuits Group and the Centre for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS), another Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence. Eggleton says quantum computing and photonics are the two highlights of physical sciences research in Sydney. Australia’s centres of excellence are established with government funding on the basis of partnerships between multiple institutions. It means strong and ongoing collaborations underpin CUDOS and CQC2T at UNSW. In the case of CUDOS, much of this collaboration has happened within Sydney, as its partners include Macquarie University — with its particular historic strength in laser development and application — and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Although CUDOS’s ARC funding ends next year, Eggleton and his AINST colleagues will continue working with CQC2T whose funding was recently renewed for another seven years.

The centres of excellence also bring longer term funding and some research security, which, under the leadership of scientists such as Eggleton and his counterpart at CQC2T, Michelle Simmons, has helped to attract top scientists from around the world. The benefit of this recruiting shows in recent outcomes. In 2015, CQC2T’s development of a silicon-based two-qubit logic gate — an essential component for the development of a quantum computer — was published in Nature and was recognized as one of the world’s top 10 breakthroughs of the year by Physics World, the magazine of the UK’s Institute of Physics. The logic gate engineered two silicon quantum bits, or qubits, to interact for the first time based on the spin of the single electron in each bit. It is the potential building block for commercially feasible quantum computers, which may arrive sooner than expected given the federal government, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra have committed more than $70 million towards the project over the last year.

While the world waits for the commercialization of the quantum computer, Eggleton believes the growing physical sciences commercial scene in Sydney will ensure the susainability of its place as a strong player in the research field. “What we’ve got to do is create an entrepreneurial culture, which is broader than maths and physics. You then have a critical mass that is sustainable and companies that are employing graduates,” says Eggleton. He points to Sydney-based companies such as superconductor foundry operator, Silanna, and optical innovator, Finisar, as current successes. “We’re providing the framework that we need to survive as academics.”

*Competitive grant funding from 2011-2014. Source: ÜberResearch

READ MORE: how science in Australia and New Zealand stacks up

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