Had Alexander Fleming been a little more house proud, the mess he left his lab in for the August holidays of 1928 would not have created the fungus that spread across his collection of staphylococci and ended up as penicillin. Of course, it took 16 years and an Australian, Howard Florey, to produce industrial and useful quantities of it, but that’s another story.

We all know hundreds of similar serendipitous discoveries that have progressed knowledge by starting out as one train of thought, and ending up as another. From the time the ancient Sumerians upended a potter’s wheel and accidentally invented the transport industry, research – both fundamental and applied – has progressed civilisation.

But what of its future? Is advancing new knowledge through research destined to favour applied over fundamental research? Is government investment tied to a quid pro quo?

In Australia, the Watt Review of research policy and funding arrangements conducted in 2015, emphasised the need for university and industry sectors to work more closely together, a not-so-subtle suggestion that recipients of public money should do public good with that money. Not a terrible idea, but one that has been consistently misunderstood as research purists lobby to protect their ideas from the merchants of commercial return.

Having impact would imply that most of our research is applied, but fundamental research can have a pathway
to impact when our researchers have strong partnerships with end users who shape the questions they ask.  

Curiosity-driven research will create fundamental new knowledge that’s 10 or 15 or more years away from making any practical applied impact. What Fleming called his ‘mouldy juice’ might have remained an antibiotic curiosity, slow to work and difficult to produce – but 16 years later it had, with the help of Florey, Chain and co., been mass produced in quantities large enough to treat all the Allied forces wounded in the Normandy landings.

Research with real impact.

Australia is a small nation with 40 local public universities which tend to look alike in their inputs and outputs. Not surprisingly, given the aforementioned Watt Review, recent reports have it that the proportion of basic research within those universities has decreased from 40 per cent to 23 per cent, whilst applied research has grown from 30
per cent to 49 per cent.

At UniSA we have managed to create a situation where both fundamental and applied research works in tandem.

We champion research with impact.

We created six key research themes around the world’s most pressing needs and we brought together interdisciplinary groups to put their talents to work on multidisciplinary solutions for those questions. What we’re looking for are innovative and sustainable solutions that respond to those needs.

It helps being young and agile. UniSA is only 27 years old and by developing research themes, we have deliberately worked to avoid the silos that would mitigate against collaborative curiosity.

The six research themes around which most of our major questions can be framed are:

An Age Friendly World sheds light on how individuals at every stage in the life course can achieve their potential;

Transforming Industries looks at creating innovative industries and services that are focused, agile, high value-add, transformative and fully integrated into global supply chains;

Scarce Resources develops management systems, capacity and know-how to support sustainable living;

Cancer focuses on reducing the burden of cancer and its progression;

Healthy Futures encompasses a holistic view of health, including physical, mental, social, environmental, and community health research;

Transforming Societies examines and evaluates changes in the world and how those changes impact our lives as individuals, families, organisations, and communities.

As public institutions, universities have a social licence to conduct research both fundamental and applied, but we need to get better at telling the stories of that research, telling of how the knowledge created in universities does help society socially and economically across the whole spectrum. We need to get rid of some of the misconceptions about what happens within universities.

And we need to ask some more questions: are we doing enough curiosity-driven research? How savvy is that curiosity? How well informed are our people? How well do they know some of the bigger problems facing society? And because of their integration with end-users, the new knowledge our researchers find will have some link, some pathway to the more applied research so that when discoveries are made, greater uses can be found for them.

Alexander Fleming would recognise that.