High impact: how the story of research can be told better

Real impact is important when considering how to fund research. Flickr/Mozzer502

When it comes to engaging with industry, government and the broader community, there is one secret weapon that is often overlooked in the university sector – the humble story. The art of storytelling is not one the sector is particularly proficient at, and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of university research.

Ask the average person on the street if they consider research funding a priority and you’d be hard pressed to find many (if any) who would say yes. Ask that same person again if they value research on brain, breast and prostate cancer, clean energy, information technology, and engineering and you will no doubt get a very different answer.

In 2010, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), universities spent $8.2 billion on research and development – with funding largely sourced from government and industry. But it seems the community in general does not appear to draw the connection between how and why research is funded and the kind of research undertaken in our universities.

Linking research with research outcomes is imperative for industry, governments and the community to understand and see value in university research.

A new approach

In an effort to address this issue – and in a national first - research undertaken in 30 per cent of Australia’s universities will be assessed for the impact it has.

Twelve Australian universities will participate in the three month trial - known as the Excellence in Innovation (EIA) initiative – headed by the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) and the Group of Eight (Go8).

A key focus of the trial will be on the narrative of research. This may be dismissed by the academic community as irrelevant but this is often critical to ensuring a clear understanding of the impact a piece of research may have.

Another key feature will be the use of industry stakeholders in the assessment process - not just academic experts. Whilst these experts will play a key role, they will not form the majority membership of the panels established to undertake the assessment. The research will also be assessed against Socio-Economic Objectives as outlined by the ABS, rather than the traditional Fields of Research.

The story of research

In this way, the trial is a radical departure from the traditional tools used in research assessment currently undertaken by Government. The tradition of peer-review focuses on what one academic thinks of another’s research and on indicators derived directly from the research.

While that has its place, in this exercise researchers are being asked to focus on a clearly identified impact or public good and then explain how their research contributed to this outcome - telling the story via a succinct case study. As far as is possible this case study should be free from jargon so that it can be understood by those outside the research area being evaluated.

Those of us who believe in the power of research know that there will be many stories where university knowledge has delivered benefits to the Australian community through new technologies, jobs, health outcomes, increased security for Australia or by contributing to socially cohesive communities.

Real-world results

In this way it is hoped the EIA will be the beginning of a process whereby universities achieve a greater understanding of the outcomes that government, business and the community value and how research can contribute.

This engagement is critical to Australia’s competitiveness in a global economy. Without the “innovation economy” that this engagement creates, Australia will struggle to sustain its standard of living and maintain its place in the world.

This emphasis on applied research should not be at the expense of the academic excellence in our Higher Education system but a complement to it. Innovative economies are backed by universities that register highly on both scales of academic excellence and industry engagement. This is where the Australian Higher Education sector needs to be.