Research undertaken by universities should offer a demonstrable benefit – whether a boost to the economy or a positive impact on the communities they serve, writes Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd.

Increasingly universities are considered national assets – as creators of new knowledge and teachers of career professionals. If they are doing the job right, they are also courageous, innovative, collaborative and relevant to the society in which they operate.

It comes as no surprise that government, on behalf of its taxpayers, assumes that our best efforts will be aimed at delivering value for our economy. That means translating new knowledge into outcomes. And as Australia’s University of Enterprise, it is particularly important for our research to offer some benefit to Australians in terms of economic boost or community benefit.

As you would all know – because keeping that light under a bushel is particularly difficult – 97 per cent of our research was rated as at or above world class standard when the Australian Government ran its ruler over us in 2015. We are now ranked as one of Australia’s top 10 universities, number nine in fact, just behind the research-rich Group of Eight sandstones. 

There’s no real secret to our success: we are a progressive, entrepreneurial and relevant institution and we have built a collaborative ethos from our very beginnings. We have long been the university of choice for business and the professions, and they have brought their problems to us for solutions. 

Our research has impact.

To have real impact it must cross disciplines and it must engage end-users to get the very best results. Our research themes were developed to help focus our efforts. To sharpen that focus we elaborated on those themes by asking six big questions:

• In An Age Friendly World: How can we enable and support active ageing across he lifespan?

• In Scarce Resources: How do we eliminate waste in this State?

• For Healthy Futures: How can we build, sustain and strengthen the mental health of South Australians?

• In terms of Transforming Industries: How can we provide sustainable and stable energy for South Australia?

• When it comes to Cancer: How can we reduce the burden of cancer and its progression?

• and in Transforming Societies: How can we reduce inequality and give all South Australians a better future?

To give you an example of how closely we interrogated our themes, under the theme of an age-friendly world our researchers discussed developing an environment where aged-care is a preferred profession; they asked how they could explore the intersection of diet, lifestyle and sleep for health across the lifespan; what the model of care for older people with multiple morbidities is; how can loneliness be managed and/or prevented; and what would an age-blind society look like?

The questions were discussed by the broadest collection of experts we could offer and they were joined by the ultimate end-users. We had expertise from Commerce, Law, Management and Marketing; Art, Architecture and Design, Communication International Studies and Language, Education and Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy; Health Sciences and Pharmacy and Medical Sciences; Engineering and Natural and Built Environments; and the Future Industries Institute. We added students, people from Research and Innovation Services and some from Communications and Marketing, all of whom were focused on building research that would have impact on our theme of an age-friendly world.

And we put money on the table. The Research Themes Investment Scheme (RTIS) supports research that spans traditional disciplinary boundaries and builds collaborative partnerships. In 2017 $1 million was allocated for RTIS with 80 per cent targeted to proposals that addressed one of the big questions we’re posing. We had 23 winners who addressed the big questions and five addressed a research area within a theme and these will be funded. An application from Associate Professor Shahraam Afshar Vahid who is developing a novel non-invasive imaging technique to look at the metabolic activity of cancer was ranked number one and will receive an extra $5000.

In 2018 our research themes and the activities around them will broaden to engage specifically with end-users to help us maximise our impact.

And that, folks, is how we, as a 26-year-old institution without a medical school can get to be Australia’s number two in funding received from Commonwealth grants to Cooperative Research Centres; to be one of Australia’s most successful universities for grant success rates in ARC Discovery Project Grants; and to have a very healthy research income, again, without said medical school.

It’s all about impact. And it will be increasingly so over the next few years. And I couldn’t think of a better use for our intellectual resources.