By Patrick Wright, edited for online by Nicholas Chin.

Research and development spending in Australia is lagging behind countries with half our population, a new report from Australia’s Chief Science Office has found.

The paper found Australia performed well in a count of scholarly papers and citations but was falling behind in other areas.

The report noted Scandinavian countries with half the population of Australia had higher research spending, more collaboration and could attract more foreign investment to support research activities.

Most of Australia’s research and development is happening in universities, however experts say the issue is not just about tertiary institutions.

Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute director Greg Prince says mathematical research in Australia is in danger of falling behind.

“The developments are international developments and Australia can’t afford to be left behind, it’s not something you can do,” Mr Prince said.

Chief Science Officer Ian Chubb has called for a rethink of university funding to address the problem.

He says disciplines popular with undergraduates are favoured under the current arrangement over disciplines such as maths and agricultural science.

Mr Chubb says disciplines are competing in a “popularity contest”.

Despite the claims, Mr Prince says the government’s already providing support to universities teaching “unpopular” disciplines.

“The government pays the universities more for students in those disciplines because the costs are higher so there is an incentive,” Mr Prince said.

Griffith University Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research Ned Pankhurst says the future is bleak for Australian research unless changes are made now.

“We’ve become a dumber nation, we’ve become dependent on international supplies of knowledge and innovation,” Professor Pankhurst said.

“It’s highly problematic for Australia because many of our problems are local.”

Professor Pankhurst says students are finding disciplines such as science irrelevant and they are unsure of employment opportunities available to graduates.

He says attitudes are already bleak and need to be changed earlier.

“We are living in an environment and a society that’s becoming technologically more and more complex, yet we have a population that is essentially disinterested in the role science plays in their lives,” Professor Pankhurst said.