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Universities to explain benefit of research to ‘end users’

Academics from a dozen universities will be required to explain to industry experts the economic and social value of hundreds…

The social, economic and environmental impact of academic research can continue for decades. Flickr/Sanofi Pasteur

Academics from a dozen universities will be required to explain to industry experts the economic and social value of hundreds of research projects from the past 20 years, under guidelines for a trial designed to measure the wider benefits of taxpayer-funded academic work.

Twelve universities - four from the Group of Eight, five of the Australian Technology Network of Universities, and the University of Newcastle, Charles Darwin University and the University of Tasmania - will take part in the Excellence in Innovation for Australia (EIA) trial, which is expected to influence funding decisions for future research projects.

Each university has until the end of August to prepare submissions for up to 20 case studies that show how their research provided “end-user benefits” in one of four “Socio-Economic Objective” (SEO) areas defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics: defence (or national security), economic development, society and culture, and the environment.

The impact of the research is to be gauged over the past five years.

Crucially, the guidelines specify that the case studies “should be in layperson’s language and free from jargon” so they can be understood by people who are not experts in the research field.

The trial is part of a push to break from narrow measurements of research impact that count peer-reviewed publications in academic journals and citations in articles by other academics.

“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,” said Vicki Thomson, National Director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities.

Within each SEO area there are up to 12 categories. Case studies must demonstrate the impact of the research across three.

Academics must learn how to explain the value of the work they perform at taxpayer expense. Flickr/International Transport Forum

For each SEO area, two assessment panels made up largely of industry experts will judge the case studies on the “reach and significance” of the research before assigning an overall mark, from A - signifying that the “adoption of the research has produced an outstanding social, economic, environmental and/or cultural benefit for the wider community, regionally within Australia, nationally or internationally” - down to E, for scholarship of limited or no impact.

The results will be announced in November.

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

The guidelines add that “the transfer of knowledge between universities, industry and the community, and the impact of that knowledge on the development of new technology, new policy and economic, cultural, environmental or societal outcomes is an important focus for many Australian universities”.

The trial will draw heavily on the experience of the UK’s new Research Excellence Framework, which will include a 20% “impact component” in funding decisions from 2014. The British scheme was modelled in turn on the Research Quality Framework impact trial conducted by the ATN and Murdoch University in Australia in 2005 and 2006 - but later abandoned by the Rudd Government.

The sharp edge of research … a building at The University of Melbourne, one of 12 universities participating in the trial. Flickr/Ben Kreunen

For the latest trial, impact is defined as “an effect on, change, benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life beyond academia. It includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • The activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding

  • Of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals

  • In any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally."

The EIA will complement the Federal Government’s Excellence in Research for Australia program, conducted in 2010 and this year, which measures the standing of research within academe but not in the wider community.

Gavin Moodie, Principal Policy Advisor at RMIT University, welcomed the decision to assess research from as far back as 1992. “Some of the best research takes a long time to have a big impact. It is good that assessment panels will be chaired by and have a majority of ‘end users’ since this is likely to concentrate attention of the significance of the research’s impact on users rather than other researchers.

“It is true that impact is an even more retrospective measure of research importance than the standard measures of funding - publications and citations. However, this seems inescapable if impact is to be taken into account since some of the best research takes along time to have a big impact.”

In the 15-page submission for each case study, universities must list the authors of the work, explain how much the research project cost, identify the problem the project aimed to solve, specify the findings, and demonstrate exactly how those findings led to the impact claimed.

“The Assessment Panels realise that providing data to conclusively verify each claim of high value research impact would impose a large administrative overhead for institutions and could result in submissions which are excessively lengthy,” the guidelines state.

The submissions, therefore, should include a statement “to the effect that institutions have the data, testimonies, material or other information as relevant, to verify claims made in submissions and would be able to produce such information should they be so required to do.”

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Dustin Welbourne

    PhD Candidate in Biogeography + Science Communicator at UNSW Australia

    This sounds like a great idea. My position is that all research should have a part of the grant dedicated to communicating the research to the wider public.

    Yet, there are a couple of lines in the article that makes me think of the ‘Dragons Den’. If this program is used solely as a way to assess past research, great, but if it is to be used as suggested, “which is expected to influence funding decisions for future research projects” then 'great' (<--sarcastic punctuation).

    If asked what…

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  2. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    The Australian Government hasn't announced how even the results of the excellence in research for Australia assessments may affect funding decisions, so it is too early to consider if let alone how impact may affect funding in Australia. But perhaps one may draw implications from the UK.

    The UK's research excellence framework will assess all universities' research by 3 criteria: quality on the traditional criteria (65%), impact (20%) and research environment (15%). Universities' ratings on this formula will affect their institutional block research funding for the following 5 or 6 years.

    So the UK scheme doesn't seek to fund research projects on their expected impact prospectively, but institutions on their found impact retrospectively.

    Australian governments do not fund research to satisfy researchers' curiosity, but for its impact on society.

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    1. Edward Reynolds

      PhD Student in Communication and Social Interaction at University of Queensland

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      "Australian governments do not fund research to satisfy researchers' curiosity, but for its impact on society."

      There are real arguments to say that they should. In the innovation research/business literatures there are reliable and clear demonstrations that the 'absorptive capacity' that is, the overall technical competence, of a business/country/university has a clear relationship with indices of growth.
      simply put you can't understand the research of others if you are not doing basic, undirected…

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    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Edward Reynolds

      Let us distinguish between basic research and reporting the impact of all research, basic or otherwise. I think Australian universities should do mostly basic research and I regret their shift to applied research over the last decade.

      But to maintain and hopefully increase government support for their research universities should try to demonstrate its impact. This is one of the reasons why I support reporting impacts of research up to 20 years ago: it introduces an unfortunate lag into the data, but I think that is probably necessary collect impacts of less apparently utilitarian research.

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    3. Michael James

      Research scientist

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      The shift to applied research or short-term so-called translational research shows just how poorly the political and science bureaucrats and maybe the university bureaucrats understand the nature of research. It may also be a consequence of Australia having no meaningful venture capital industry at least for the kind of biomedical or biotech that Australian science happens to actually excel at. So they imagine it somehow needs to be done in the universities themselves which of course, combined with Australian granting bodies timidity, ends up avoidance of anything with the least bit of "risk". Risk is defined as anything that we cannot clearly predict before we do it: ie. actual real research.

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  3. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    I think some of the wording here is unfortunate, it's misleading and unfair.

    Rather than writing, "the work they do at taxpayer expense', I'd be far more inclined to write, "the return on taxpayer investment from the work they do."

    If you think research is expensive, try not doing any research at all.

    Likewise, if you think education is expensive, of which research is a clearly intended product, try ignorance.

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  4. Ross McNeilage

    project manager

    Here here to Michael James comments. However in my experience through listening to and questioning friends in academia, the funding measuring stick of "peer review and published articles" is a hopelessly inadequate and biased basis on which to fund a faculty. Some courses, for instance entrepreneurial skill development, are focussed on the science of business and so are universally rejected by the "established" publications as being unsuitable for publication in a "purely research" periodical, regardless of the scientific goals and post graduate achievements of the participants. Us private enterprise taxpayers would like to see some commercial metrics applied to scientific research, understanding that a lot of research does and should reach a dead end, because science is theoretic pursuit of the unknown.

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  5. Cris Kerr

    Volunteer Advocate for the value of Patient Testimony & Sustaining our Public Healthcare Systems

    I think this is a wonderful initiative, even with a few wrinkles to iron out.

    It will be interesting to see health case study histories; where research has
    led to new drugs or treatments that have measurably contributed to improved
    long term health outcomes, improved quality of life, reduced disability,
    improved productivity, enhanced economic sustainability of public health
    funding, etc.

    All of that would be a lot easier to measure IF Australia was planning to
    extend the depth and meaningful use of ehealth data.

    They could then create a single population/public health research database,
    and could then readily measure improvements in population/public health
    outcomes over time.

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  6. Gary Antonelli

    Student

    Frankly, anyone who gets money from anywhere must show what it was used for. I don't think it is a big deal. As a very simple example, if you support your kid to study at a university, you want to see the results (even if your kid paid for a service like superiorpapers.com or any), why you paid and if it was good for something or was blown with the wind.

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  7. Pera Lozac

    Heat management assistant

    Another useless attempt of utter trivialisation of academic work. What a waste of time and money. How about measuring the purpose of one's research based on contribution to knowledge of humanity. Or is that notion insufficient for politicians?

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  8. Comment removed by moderator.