Australia has long been seen as failing to fully capitalise on its ground-breaking research. A consultation paper on university research commercialisation is the latest federal government effort to increase the impact of research. Its focus is on creating incentives for industry-university collaboration to translate and commercialise research.
Any government scheme resulting from these consultations might boost the number of such collaborations. Yet our research suggests many of these projects are unlikely to reach their full potential unless academics and their research partners working in industry strengthen their collaborative relationships.
Our recently published investigation of the Australian Research Council Linkage scheme found these productive relationships do not occur organically. The academic side must work to ensure industry practitioners fully contribute their expertise.
What did the study find?
In our study, a number of projects were marked by ostensibly healthy relationships. Relations between practitioners and academics were harmonious. Yet practitioners engaged on a very narrow range of aspects only.
Practitioners saw their role as merely facilitating and supporting academics. They were not fully engaged. These projects were denied the full benefits of practitioners’ expertise complementing academic expertise.
Therefore, apparently harmonious collaborations were ultimately compromised.
As one academic explained:
_“[It is] really about saying everyone brings different things […] to the table and to the development of a research project.”
A corresponding practitioner emphatically acknowledged this point.
Effective industry-university partnerships require close collaboration. This means both sides engage fully in an open and contestable forum. Only then can they get the full benefits of partners with complementary perspectives and knowledge bases working together.
Building better relationships must be a priority
To improve collaborations academics need to enable practitioners to be fully engaged.
We identified a number of enabling practices for academics to adopt. Practitioners can then become equal partners in research projects. Decision-making becomes more open, contested and productive.
The consultation paper identifies social, cultural and economic barriers to industry-university partnerships. In announcing the University Research Commercialisation Scheme, federal Education Minister Alan Tudge called for “new ideas on how we can increase collaboration between business and universities and put our research at the heart of our economic recovery”.
Our findings suggest a number of solutions.
Where partnerships are more than simple research-translation exercises with fairly straightforward, unilateral transfers of know-how from academia to industry, we need to pay close attention to the relationship between the partners. In particular, academics need to become more adept at working with practitioners to capitalise fully on their distinct yet complementary types of knowledge.
This requires instilling in academics greater awareness of relationship dynamics and their effects on research outcomes. The skills needed to initiate and sustain close collaboration between research partners must be fostered.
3 steps to improve partnerships
Universities may want to familiarise academics with the ways they can enable practitioners as co-researchers. The enabling practices our research uncovered are a useful starting point.
1. Develop practitioners’ research capabilities
Beyond imparting particular skills, research training and “on the job” research exposure build practitioners’ awareness of the research process. This helps them to see how they can contribute more to the project.
2. Increase practitioners’ project responsibilities
Project responsibility gives practitioners a greater voice in project decisions and legitimises their role in the research. Joint responsibility signals their involvement in decision-making is valid and legitimate.
3. Embed practitioners in the team to broaden perspectives
Fully socialising and integrating practitioners in the research team enables them to see themselves as equal partners who can engage in and benefit the project.
Several academics underscored the importance of forging close bonds among team members. For instance, to help practitioners appreciate their own value, one academic encouraged conversations among collaborating practitioners.
“The technician might not have the imagination that the artist does and similarly the curators might not know what the town planner requires […] So one of the things we do is to roll them together so that one [practitioner] partner speaks to the next and learns from the other.”
As they got to appreciate one another’s diverse and unique knowledge, practitioners were more prepared to engage fully.
These practices enable projects to harness the value of partners’ different perspectives.
Any future scheme designed for greater research impact ought to combine incentives to establish industry-university collaborations with a focus on strengthening these relationships.
Submissions on the University Research Commercialisation Scheme close on April 9.