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University research can build a sustainable Australian economy – but we’re not letting it.

With the much-anticipated release of Australian Universities Accord final report, the question now is, what will drive the urgency needed to catapult the recommended changes across the university sector and beyond? The need to better integrate our universities and the broader world is vital. 


As climate emergency bells ring louder than ever, we believe now is the time to re-set the direction of this sector so that it plays a pivotal role in driving fundamental changes to Australian economy, supporting our society to be fit for a post-carbon future.  

 

The way to do this is at the interface of universities and industry. This nexus of universities and industry is a point of extreme national value, but it was underdeveloped and lacking focus in the interim report. We’re glad to see a stronger emphasis in the final report with explicit recommendations on rethinking research funding models and upskilling researchers in industry engagement. This is extremely positive.  


But noticing it in a report isn’t enough. Universities must act on these recommendations and incorporate industry-based opportunities into their restructures. We’ve compiled a list of actions aimed at meeting or exceeding the goals outlined in the Accord. If Australia achieves better collaboration between industry and university research, this will also address university funding, dismantling silos, improving student retention, and increased educational outcomes. 


We’re among those who operate at the juncture of industry and university – blending business interests and research capabilities. This is where research is translated into products and services for the national or global marketplace. We see existing gaps firsthand, despite this area recently receiving significant (and welcome) attention.  


Any significant organisational and cultural changes within universities must take research translation and commercialisation pathways into account. This includes mechanisms for increased collaboration with industry partners that go beyond educational activities for students. It comes down to university leaders, Vice Chancellors (VCs) and Deputy Vice Chancellors (Research) (DVCRs), to initiate and lead these changes. 


As the Accord report discusses, Australia produces far more of the world’s published research than our proportion of the world’s population would suggest.  The report also points out that, unusually for an OECD nation, universities drive the bulk of this research rather than industry, who stand to benefit most from research-driven solutions. What this adds up to is a lot of research that doesn’t go anywhere – it isn’t translated into commercial opportunities or doesn’t contribute to solving real-world problems, leaving researchers disillusioned or discouraged.

 

Though Australian industry needs to step up and support research happening in this country – through ideas, funding, and adoption – the Accord process means we’re currently looking at the role of our universities with a microscope. The report recognises, as we do, that translation of research into economic, environmental, and social benefit for Australia is happening, although it’s lagging behind other OECD countries. In the recommendations across four hundred pages, the fear is that this integration of research with industry will be lost or overlooked in favour of stronger participation with government.  Let's make sure we look at the role of universities in our society and economy, and at the web of collaboration between universities and industry. 

 

Blue-sky research is extremely important, and certainly is the domain of universities, as the report argues. But more research than most of us realise can contribute to solving real-world problems, given the right settings and the right partners. This isn’t just research in the physical and life sciences, either.  We were delighted to see the report acknowledge that any important challenge in our world is ultimately about humans, so researchers in the humanities, arts, and social sciences have a crucial role to play.  


We’ve worked with game theory researchers who developed a program for teens with autism. Video gaming was used to help the teens develop social skills and be connected to communities that can nurture and bring out their full potential.  This program would not have been possible without the researchers expanding beyond their immediate research community. They had opportunities and incentives to form a multi-disciplinary team and engage with a broader group of stakeholders, enabling them to gain appreciation and empathy for the problems they might solve. This was a unique case, but it needs to become the norm.  These opportunities and incentives must be offered much more broadly, given that we’re talking about research with the potential to have a huge impact and improve national economic diversity and resilience. It can’t be driven by chance meetings or hallway conversations.  


There are a multitude of ways to ensure more productive relationships between research and the broader world.  Industry PhD schemes, like the one recently launched by the federal Department of Education, are one, research-based university startups and spin-offs are another.  But with over one hundred thousand university researchers in Australia and only a few thousand (at most) collaborating with industry, plenty of amazing work is being missed.  


Part 2  

Our research is not having the impact it deserves to make.  We welcome the report’s recommendations to change this. Additional recommendations from those of us on the front line, expanded in detail below, are to look beyond education when devising university roles; to elevate and support the roles of chief investigators in achieving commercialisation goals; to shift cultural focus to allow space for risk taking; and to offer more cross-disciplinary opportunities. 


Look beyond education when devising university roles and workloads. If we want researchers to devote significant time and effort to building relationships with industry and driving collaboration to solve real-world problems, we need to give them time in their workday to do so. We also need to reward, celebrate, and promote them when they do. It’s particularly important that the early-career researchers on short-term contracts (as mentioned in the Accord report) have a pathway to long-term university roles that come from excellence in research and research translation – in addition to the traditional pathway via excellence in teaching. The report’s recommendation of longer grant-funded research projects enabling longer fixed-term contracts for ECRs is a step in the right direction. But additionally, and crucially, researchers need to know that their university has research translation workload, funding, and promotion policies and processes in place, and that the university’s senior leaders actively support them. They need to see colleagues and peers who have been promoted for pursuing research translation.   


Elevate the roles of chief investigators and support them to capitalise on commercialisation.  Much of the heavy lifting in industry collaboration and research translation will be done by the early-career researchers (postdocs). But postdocs need strong, explicit support from their supervisor, typically a senior researcher or Chief Investigator (CI), to pursue impact from their research.  Even with the right policies in place, postdocs need their CI’s permission to invest time and effort in this.  The work also benefits hugely from the CI’s technical expertise and (if the CI has relevant experience) their mentoring, industry knowledge and relationships.   


Heads of departments and faculties play a significant role in unlocking opportunities within existing policies through the culture they create. Significant discretion and individual interpretation of policies can be the deciding factor for suffocating or catalysing research impact and engagement. If we want to empower CIs to inspire and nurture research translation in their groups, we need again to ensure that CIs’ workload models allow this, and that they are rewarded, celebrated, and promoted for doing so. Senior university leaders need to build cultures within their organisations in which CIs are willing to take risks and learn from failures – because research translation will involve failures.   


And finally, find ways to give researchers more cross-disciplinary opportunities – and not in a way that adds to existing workloads but is part of the role description, workload allocation, and promotion framework. Dismantle the silos that are so limiting to impactful research: create research groups dedicated to solving existing market problems, as defined by industry and end-users. 


A university’s role in education is one thing, the main thing, as the Accord report recognises, but it is not the only thing.  To build a sustainable future for Australian universities and Australia more broadly, we must get Australian research out into the world. This is the time to do it. But we’ll need universities and researchers to partner with industry, and we can’t leave these collaborations to chance. Otherwise, we risk wasting the talents of our researchers and restricting the growth of our economy. 



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