Indeed, the unconstrained quest for knowledge has undeniably transformed human society, leading to technological revolutions that have underpinned our longer, healthier lives, alongside unprecedented challenges to the environment and human societies.
In the Australian context, curiosity-driven research has delivered unanticipated practical outcomes. Probably the best-known recent example is the development of WiFi from CSIRO’s research in radiophysics.
But it has also led to the creation of a research base that is not well balanced by our industry base.
My definition of industry here is broad, and encompasses not just the advanced manufacturing, defence, biotech and information technology companies we tend to think of as natural homes for new technologies, but extends to all potential end-users of the research universities produce.
Australia’s industry profile is dominated by small to medium enterprises (SMEs) that typically struggle to look long-term. We have relatively few large corporate companies, and internationally, many large corporates have made a significant shift away from doing applied research internally.
Combined with a risk-averse culture that dampens entrepreneurship, Australia has relatively few successful spin-out companies.
All these factors contribute to an Australian innovation ecosystem that too rarely translates research into practical outcomes and we miss out on the economic and social benefits that come from successful commercialisation.
While this is all well understood, it is compounded by a national reward and recognition system that lauds high-impact papers and academic citations above all else.
But the winds are changing. The work of Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, to introduce national research priorities and highlight the need for us to boost the commercial returns on research is a call to action.
As is the fact that Australia recently ranked 29th of the 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on the proportion of large businesses and SMEs collaborating with higher education and public research institutions on innovation.
When researchers in Australia think about how to get their research funded, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) spring to mind as the agencies that hand out competitively awarded grants in the non-medical and medical areas respectively.
However, these pots of money are becoming increasingly competitive and it’s getting more difficult to support the significant scale research teams that are needed to stay at the cutting edge in competitive fields, without establishing a diverse range of funding sources.
Quoting from the public record of the first Commonwealth Science Council meeting, “In 2014-15, the government is investing $9.2 billion in science, research and innovation, across 115 line items and through 15 portfolios”.
Considering that the NHMRC budget for 2015-16 is $858 million and the ARC’s is $795 million, it is clear that the much larger opportunity for supporting research in our universities is from government itself.
Developing and sustaining powerful relationships with either industry or government is time-intensive. Often that investment in sustaining relationships is not supported by university cultures that value more feted metrics such as citations and high-impact papers or simply perceive the engagement as something of concern to second-class researchers.
That said, many of our very best research groups nationally do engage strongly with industry, either driven by the passion of enterprising research leaders or the need for diversified funding to support expensive research.
This shift is being nurtured by schemes such as the longstanding ARC Linkage Grant scheme, the NHMRC Development Grant projects and the relatively recent ARC Industrial Transformational Research Hubs and Centres.
What is sometimes rather dismissively described as ‘industry-driven research’ is starting to be recognised for what it can be; that is, research inspired by application.
Even challenges that appear at first to be relatively simple and applied in nature often inspire new fundamental research directions and discoveries which can, in turn, offer new solutions.
As an example from my own research, a 10-year partnership with Defence Science and Technology Organisation focused on developing optical fibres for monitoring corrosion on aircraft underpinned new approaches to sensing the endometrium, which has since led to devices capable of measuring the temperatures within metal smelters.
Strong partnerships with industry are vital. So is having the capacity to work effectively across discipline boundaries. The challenges we face certainly do not respect these boundaries. As well as strong disciplinary foundations, interdisciplinary work requires researchers to learn each other’s languages and customs.
Is there still a role for curiosity-driven research? Most certainly.
But I would argue that a researcher’s curiosity is likely to take a different path if the researcher has insights into how it might be taken up beyond the lab.
One of the greatest benefits of getting this right will be in the jobs created for future generations. Right now, Australia has comparatively few of its PhD-trained researchers working in industry and it is not common for industry and government employees to spend time working within our university research groups.
UniSA’s commitment to transform the PhD program by, for example, embedding end-users on every supervisory panel, will be a vital element in bringing our research and application worlds closer.
I believe that if we give students and early career researchers the opportunity to work on meaningful problems with partners who are invested in the outcomes of the research, we will attract a greater diversity of talent to research as well as better prepare people for jobs outside academia.
What will the industries of the future look like? There is no question that they will increasingly be competing in a global and highly connected environment with increasing cost pressures.
In some cases, the most innovative of our current companies will survive the challenges they are facing and evolve into different markets and business models.
Universities can play a unique role in powering that evolution. Some of tomorrow’s big employers may indeed be conceived as university spin-offs, although the biggest benefit of spin-offs across the board is likely to be the learning and development opportunities for those involved. Amazing research can draw large companies to invest or relocate activities.
Some futures seem likely to us today – such as driverless cars, automated energy-efficient homes or smart fabrics that monitor medical conditions. Other futures seem further away yet are more desperately required – such as equitable health care, reduced social disadvantage and reducing our impact on the environment.
We can also expect disruptive technologies to produce dramatic shifts in the way we live – 30 years ago today’s world of information at our fingertips on small mobile screens would have seemed fanciful.
As we head towards our 25th birthday, it is exciting to see that partnerships that will allow UniSA to make substantial contributions to this future are already starting to emerge.
To capitalise on this potential nationally we need to support our most enterprising researchers and focus on doing engaged research.
LEADING RESEARCH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ENTERPRISE
As the University approaches its 25th birthday next year, it is stunning to see the breadth and depth of research we pursue, from cancer to minerals processing, pain to marketing, social justice to advanced materials and more.
In 2014 the University brought in more than $70 million to support research, a significant achievement for a relatively young university. One critical element in this success has been the continued focus, evident across many parts of the University, on building significant partnerships with end-users. One example is our sector-leading engagement in the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program, which supports long-term, large-scale research focused on partnerships between consortia of researchers and industry.
UniSA was recently ranked number one in Australia for interdisciplinary research, and this is an excellent foundation to build on. We have just launched UniSA’s six research themes:
• an age-friendly society
• transforming societies
• cancer prevention and management
• society and global transformations
• healthy futures
• scarce resources.
By investing in these themes and, in particular, in partnerships between our researchers across disciplines and with end-users, we will nurture collaborations and further increase our capacity to engage in transformative research that can translate into impact.
Connect with Prof Tanya Monro: @tanyamonro
Find out more about UniSA’s Research and Innovation Services on its website.