Universities close in on research impact measures

Calculating the economic impact of research has proved a challenging task for universities. Leo Reynolds

The impact of university research can and should be measured, says Australian Technology Network executive director Vicki Thomson, but more work needs to be done before impact can be linked to funding.

The ATN, together with the Group of Eight, is nearing completion of a trial assessing the impact of research undertaken at 12 Australian universities, with a report due at the end of this month.

“We believe it’s demonstrated that impact is assessable,” Ms Thomson said today.

“The Australian Government and taxpayers deserve to know where their money is actually going. At the moment we have a really good system, which measures the quality of research, but we don’t have anything that does that for impact.”

Ms Thomson said while the ATN and Go8 Excellence in Innovation trial would help address how to measure impact, there were still question marks about how to distribute funding on the basis of impact.

“There’s a huge conversation that needs to be had about the merits of measuring impact before we talk about money,” she said.

Ms Thomson’s comments come after Australian Research Council chief Aidan Byrne told The Australian he would be open to including impact measures in any future research funding audits.

“For the ARC to acknowledge that (impact measures) could be part of a modified ERA is something we’d be encouraged by,” Ms Thomson said.

However Andrew Norton, program director of higher education at the Grattan Institute, said academics would always try to do what they were going to do anyway, but shape it within any new incentive structure.

“Most people agree at a high level that you should have broad indicators of impact but it’s finding robust indicators of impact – how do you actually measure impact?” Mr Norton said.

He added that any system could be gamed and that was the major problem facing measures being linked to funding.

“The real risk with all this fiddling is that universities put more and more effort into gaming rather than actually focusing on what they’re good at, or their original mission, which in many cases is to serve local communities and not the global research production machine.”

Group of Eight executive director Michael Gallagher declined to comment, however a backgrounder report released by the group last year argued measuring the impact of research was difficult because not all impacts are direct, some can be negative and the time between the performance of research and when its benefits become apparent can be significant, unpredictable and differ for different kinds of research.

The Coalition has also flagged an increased focus on research impact as part of its education policy platform, with Andrew Robb telling The Australian the government should focus on funding research that produces innovation.

“Linking it to innovation makes sense on the face of it, but you’d have to make sure you had robust measures in place,” Ms Thomson said.

The Coalition is also seeking to make the grants program more efficient to reduce the time researchers spend applying for grants.

Ms Thomson said the ATN would welcome the increase of grant periods from three years to five years to improve researcher productivity.

“The downside is if you are an early career researcher you’d have to wait five years for the next grant round. So you’d have to have some mechanism for early career researchers,” she said.