Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Research Needs a New Narrative

By Tanya Monro

Research is a tapestry of creativity that enriches the society in which we live.

Research is all about asking questions. What separates good research from great research is the quality and nature of the question.

What drives researchers? What shapes their questions? Does it matter?

In recent years the Australian research ecosystem has been in the grip of a debate about the impact of the research we do and what can be done to remedy the relatively poor engagement between our industries and our universities, according to OECD reports.

There is an underlying assumption that if we were able to drive the commercialisation of more of our research and better connect the worlds of business and academia we would be poised to benefit as a nation from innovation-driven economic growth and the creation of high-value jobs for our children.

This is cast as a battle between pure and applied research and between short-term problem-solving and long-term curiosity-driven knowledge creation – a battle that, with some notable exceptions, sees an unbridgeable gulf between most of our research academics and the communities and industries that might potentially benefit from their knowledge.

Australia’s best research is transformative, impactful and fundamentally curiosity-driven. It is founded on deep creativity and strong long-term partnerships with research end-users who shape the directions in which it travels and the questions that the researchers frame and pursue. In many of the fundamental disciplines – from physics and astronomy through to the creative arts – Australia’s researchers are well above world standard.

Answering the questions posed by research is the relatively easy part. The process of answering well-posed research questions is the part of the research endeavour that comes closest to mirroring the stereotypical views most children have of scientists – people in white lab coats who, step-by-step, follow a recipe, applying the tools and methodologies of the discipline in which they have received intensive training until they become the world expert in one tiny sliver of knowledge.

When put this way, deep disciplinary expertise seems an isolating and potentially irrelevant burden. Fortunately this is far from the truth, since deep disciplinary-based excellence is at the core of the research endeavour.

Research is at its heart a creative industry that draws communities, industry and universities together, immeasurably enriching the society in which we live.

Most universities around Australia have many rich examples of high-quality research and dedicated researchers, and have powerful and engaging stories to tell about their research. There is no question that as a sector we need to get better at telling these stories in order to dispel the misconceptions that have come to the surface in the current debate about industry engagement and impact. It’s also critical as a way of encouraging more bright young people into research, especially the STEM disciplines.

By considering only the value embedded in the products, policies and services that research enables is a very limited and narrow view of the value of our best research. Arguably the greatest impact our research has is embedded in the experiences and learning of our undergraduate students.

Being taught by active researchers who are thought leaders in their fields internationally is inspiring and, when this is combined with contributions from practising professionals, creates an educational offering that is not only current and applicable but also instils the innovation elements critical for future professional development and evolution in a world where work is changing fast.

So what does this tell us?

There is no question that we need to encourage and incentivise partnerships between researchers and the potential end-users of their research. But before we do that we need to get much better as a nation at nurturing interdisciplinary research, because real-world challenges don’t respect discipline boundaries.

We also need to create critical mass in areas of national research priority rather than direct scarce research funding according to which areas scream the loudest. This will clearly build our nation’s capacity to face significant global challenges as well as strengthen our economic and social resilience while simultaneously raising educational outcomes for our graduates.

We need to change our narrative from being one of deficit, where we talk of chances not seized, to one of a rich tapestry where research is inseparable from the communities it benefits.

Critical to this is increased mobility of people between industry and academia, supported by co-location and precincts so well developed that it’s difficult see the where academia ends and the “real world” begins.

Professor Tanya Monro FAA FTSE is Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow at UniSA. She is a member of the PM’s Commonwealth Science Council, the CSIRO Board, the South Australian Defence Advisory Board and the South Australian Economic Development Board.