With COVID-19 creating further uncertainty in an already volatile funding environment, Professor Dan Johnson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Innovation), explains why diversification and growth in Macquarie’s research funding is key to our success as a university of service and engagement.
While Australia is widely recognised for producing some of the world’s best academic outputs, the truth is we rank poorly against OECD countries when it comes to collaboration between academia and industry.
Sure, we can all point to examples of successful university-industry partnerships (including some wonderful examples right here at Macquarie), but few would claim that our universities and industry have the same level of deep, multi-layered interaction that you find in other developed economies like Germany, where systems and workplace cultures support these sectors to interact easily and productively.
Why does Australia struggle?
The OECD’s 2017 Australia Survey points to contributing factors for our industry collaboration lag, including the performance metrics of academics, weak mobility between research and business sectors, and differing approaches to IP ownership and management.
Others, like former University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis, blame factors within the Australian business community, including a culture of risk aversion, inadequacies in areas such as management skills, networking skills and capital markets, and government regulation and policy.
Clearly, the solution requires further cultural shifts within both industry and academia.
The lure of ‘pure’
Like most Australian universities, there are pockets of our academy that regard traditional forms of research investment (typically Category 1 sources such as ARC and NHMRC) as ‘pure’ and therefore more desirable. Partnerships with Category 2-4 sources, including industry partners, are deemed less desirable, with some believing they may detract from independent academic endeavour (or even compromise academic integrity), and can be based on menial, uninteresting programs.
However, I sense that perception within our University is shifting.
Whether due to necessity or design, there is a growing appetite to seek partners beyond the traditional Category 1 sources. A growing cohort of ‘streetwise’, entrepreneurial academics see strategic value in operating at the interface of academia and the community, either exclusively or in addition to their traditional forms of academic endeavour.
They actively seek out opportunities to consult with industry, government, NGOs and RDCs; forge research contracts with partners; and enter public-private partnership schemes like ARC Linkage grants and CRCs. They prioritise professional development through programs like CSIRO’s ON Prime, and attend external, non-academic fora related to sectors in which they work and hope to work.
Some academics have gone a step further and formed their own companies to drive uptake and translation, understanding that in some circumstances this approach can attract additional partners and further forms of investment (including government grants, private equity, venture capital and philanthropic funding) not available to the university sector.
Turning ideas into impact: Modular Photonics successfully translated and commercialised 15 years of research from the MQ Photonics Research Centre.
The myth of ‘dirty research’
Despite the perception, one does not need to sacrifice true academic quality or integrity when working with external partners. In fact, an ongoing study of US peer reviewed publications notes that citation rates for publications with authors from academia and industry may exceed those from academia or industry alone.
The reality is that many private or NGO companies run sophisticated internal R&D discovery programs that can match – and, in some cases, even exceed – the state of the art in academia. Without involvement from academia, findings from these research programs might not ever be publicised in any medium, let alone published in peer-reviewed literature.
In the future, reaching and staying at the cutting edge of some academic disciplines might only be attained through a deliberate strategy of engaging both within, and outside of, the academy.
The funding winds are shifting
The expectations of universities from both government and the community have shifted – we are increasingly expected to seek knowledge and application with equal enthusiasm. Changes to the formula underpinning the allocation of Australian Government Research Block Grants has seen Category 2-4 income sources become as influential as Category 1 income sources. The public purse clearly views scholarship and application as two sides of the same coin.
Whatever our philosophical view of Category 2-4 research funding, there is a clear need to look beyond traditional sources of investment. Growth prospects for the key traditional Category 1 granting programs are limited (although there are obvious exceptions like the Medical Research Future Fund), and success rates for the most sought-after schemes are very low, even for proposals that are world-class and worthy of investment.
In the broader context, other drivers of revenue growth for universities in recent decades (such as international students) may not deliver the sort of future revenue growth needed to keep pace with rising costs and the global race for scale and impact that drives rankings and, in turn, many aspects of university operations.
Cooperative Research Centres – like the new SmartCrete CRC, which will be hosted at Macquarie – connect industry partners with the research sector to solve industry-identified issues.
Our post-COVID future
COVID-19 has changed many aspects of university life. When it comes to the research investment landscape, it could be argued that it has merely accelerated long-term trends.
The truth is, absent changes in the broader (geo)political context, Category 2-4 sources could represent one of the few areas of growth for universities through to 2030.
Realising our ambition to become a top 200 ranked university, on clear trajectory towards the top 150, will require sustained effort on many fronts. Successful implementation of focused Category 2-4 strategies will be an important part of the equation, as reflected in the new Macquarie University Operating Plan 2020-2024.
Staff feedback in the engagement phase of the Operating Plan – particularly around the Ways of Working theme – showed there is a definite appetite (and no shortage of great ideas) for reform when it comes to our University’s operating model. Some highlighted a need to better meet the expectations of external partners in regard to things like speed of decision-making, commercially pragmatic partnership terms and contract turnaround times.
The shift to a greater Category 2-4 focus is not an easy journey for all disciplines or temperaments, and the time taken to build relationships with external partners can be significant. A large research contract can be the result of years of building trust small projects and regular engagement.
Recent reforms to our promotional pathways have provided incentives for academics who wish to build their career through non-conventional pathways, including through working with external partners. In a small but growing number of cases, careers have been built by working in conjunction with non-traditional investors – so mentors and models to follow do exist.
Bigger and better together: The School of Education partnered with IBM to develop a curriculum framework for teaching AI in schools.
Category 2-4 income sources (without forgetting the Category 1 sources that involve industry links such as ARC Linkage) are increasingly central to the strategic planning efforts of faculties and departments. Some are already well down this path, and there are many successful partnerships at Macquarie to build on.
Evidence also points to groups and individuals who are willing, but perhaps lack the way to go about it. The Macquarie University Incubator and Office of Commercialisation and Innovation are actively developing a training program to fill this gap.
With the clearly stated objectives in our Operating Plan, now is the time to hone our structures and systems to make Macquarie a logical, easy-to-work-with partner. My door is always open to help those who are willing to embrace this agenda.