This week saw the welcome news that the federal government has committed to pursuing a national science strategy.
Following a meeting on Monday with the Commonwealth Science Council, of which I am a member, the Minister for Industry and Science, Ian Macfarlane, has indicated he will consult with the science sector to agree on a number of research priorities that will help direct funding.
This is good news not only for scientists and research institutions, but also for the nation as a whole, and especially for the interaction between science and industry.
Australia has some amazing strengths in science. The Australian Research Council’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) report shows us that our research in physics, astronomy, agriculture – to pick a few – is at the forefront of world activities in terms of citations and academic impact. Our best research is indeed internationally leading.
But this paints an incomplete picture. Australia also ranks 29th of the 30 OECD countries on the proportion of large businesses and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) collaborating with higher education and public research institutions on innovation.
The reality is that our science workforce is strongly mismatched with our industry base. So, in truth, while this result is disappointing, it is not surprising.
One stark example is medical research. Our medical research is outstanding. We have a large medical research workforce and it is an area that captures the public interest. This is starkly evident when we look at the money: the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) budget for 2015-2016 is A$858 million, whereas the ARC is A$795 million.
Considering that the ARC budget covers all non-medical research, from the social sciences and humanities to maths and engineering, this seems out of balance.
Connections to industry
This question of balance becomes even more stark when we take a step back and look at the broader picture – at the industry base. Australia’s industry is largely SME-based. But SMEs often have trouble taking discoveries from medical science and translating them into new commercial products.
We are not a home to Big Pharma, as in the UK and the US. And the pathways to bringing new drugs to market is more challenging here as a result. This is also an expensive game that is harder for a smaller player such as Australia to take a major share in.
My time working at the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre shaped my view on how research concentrations can work with industry. It was rare to have a week where a company, big or small, was not in the lab talking about possible projects, stimulating new fundamental research directions and initiating new applied projects.
Working in this kind of ecosystem drives researcher mobility. Its spin offs provide new career pathways for PhD graduates, who then place research projects back in the university, and so on.
This is the kind of ecosystem we need to strive to create in Australia. But it is much harder to do if we try to artificially construct it on top of our research capabilities without thought to the industry base.
Reaching out to SMEs
We do have significant numbers of SMEs that work in areas including component manufacturing, food processing and engineering services. Some are under enormous stress in current conditions, such as those supplying the almost extinct Australian automotive industry.
These are the companies that need a real leg up to allow them to benefit from working with researchers. The challenges are real and significant. It is not always easy for a researcher to identify how they can contribute to a small company working to short-term challenges and time horizons. The language gap is much larger than with the largest companies, which have the luxury of having staff with a background in research.
But it can be done. A tangible example is the South Australian Government’s Photonics Catalyst Scheme. This co-funds small projects posed by local SMEs that can be tackled by the state’s photonics researchers.
This scheme has generated a long list of partners in a short time since it was established two years ago. It works because regular opportunities are created to bring the industry face-to-face with the researchers. This fosters opportunities for relationships to be formed, and for the industry to gain an understanding of the intellectual and infrastructure capacities within our universities.
Australia’s research capacity has largely grown organically, bottom-up, from curiosity-driven research lead at our universities. It is here, unlike the US, where most of our research capacity resides.
The ARC was established in 1988 to direct support to “fields that have the capacity to contribute to the national industry capacity”. However, we have not had the courage as a nation to really focus our investment in science and research before now. Previous sets of national priorities for research have been broadly framed and all encompassing.
The confirmation this week that the Commonwealth Science Council endorsed nine new National Research Priorities is a great step forward. These priorities are:
- Soil and water
- Environmental change and health.
Expert working groups have articulated key challenges Australian research could focus on in each of these areas to create knowledge and generate solutions that will be of particular importance to everybody.
Investigator-driven research would not on its own cover these needs, so this is a great step forward. It’s clear that this is not an applied research agenda – the idea is to encourage fundamental research inspired by these priorities as much as to facilitate stronger partnerships between research and industry.
This raises the questions of how we can now use these priorities to shift our research base towards the challenges our nation faces and the opportunities we can seize. Funding clearly drives behaviour, and the extent to which these priorities drive funding opportunities will determine outcomes to some extent.
The other critical element is recognition and rewards. Our current university system idolises high impact papers and citations. While this is a great way of telling us what other academics think of our work, it is necessary but not sufficient for driving outcomes from that work.
I have also observed that research inspired by meaningful practical challenges attracts more women to areas that are typically male-dominated, such as physics and engineering.
Getting research out of the lab
The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) has recently been working with the other learned academies to propose a second dimension to the research metrics space: that of research engagement with end-users of that research.
The report on this work is due to be released shortly. We need our universities to be be able to recognise and reward research concentrations that are both high quality and strongly engaged. This is the Pasteur’s Quadrant of research evaluation.
The 2014 paper Boosting the Commercial Returns from Research proposed that the ARC and NHMRC should recognise industry experience. This is an excellent principle.
But we need to go further by creating promotion pathways and fellowships that prioritise industry experience. At the University of South Australia we have recently implemented a promotion pathway to full professor that rewards outstanding attainment in working with industry. Such pathways can open up paths for researchers to develop research careers in which they spend time both in universities and in industry.
Anything that can encourage researchers to work with industry, or that encourages entrepreneurship, will start us on the journey of evolving our research base into one that supports Australia’s future economic prosperity and quality of life.