Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

We Need Better Collaboration to Optimise Our Research

By Peter Gray

A proposed metric of industry engagement seeks to reward research impact as well as excellence.

Australia’s national competitiveness is threatened by the fact that our university researchers are less engaged in collaboration with industry than their counterparts in other countries, according to OECD data.

Government and industry have increasingly called for the problem to be addressed. The Ministers for Industry and Education recently announcing the development of a strategy entitled “Boosting the Commercial Returns from Research” to tackle this issue.

The Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering has been conscious of the implications of the issue for some time, and has proposed the development of a metric to recognise and encourage better collaboration between Australia’s publicly funded researchers and business.

Such a metric would use already reported data – including income received by universities from commercial and industry sources – to create a metric of industry engagement.

The established Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) system encourages university researchers to publish quality research based on metrics such as citation rates, and rewards this behaviour by moderating the allocation of approximately $65 million per year based on ERA outcomes. The behaviours that ERA drives in our university sector are even greater than might be anticipated from this scale of funding, demonstrating that a metrics-based approach can achieve important behavioural change.

While research excellence is desirable in its own right, the current system’s funding weighting towards research excellence is often at the expense of other important activities such as university–industry collaborations, entrepreneurial behaviour and knowledge transfer.

A new engagement metric is intended as a counterbalancing measure to ensure that collaboration is appropriately recognised and rewarded alongside excellence. It is important to note that such a metric is proposed to work in parallel with the ERA and does not imply a loss of value of basic, curiosity-driven research.

The concept of a metric to measure collaboration and engagement has received wide support from government, universities and other stakeholders. The Forum of Australian Chief Scientists has endorsed ATSE’s proposal, and Federal and state governments have expressed interest in taking the concept further. As a result, ATSE recently undertook a project to develop the original proposal into a series of options for Knowledge Translation Metrics.

Research engagement is the interaction between researchers and research organisations and their larger communities or industries for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, understanding and resources. Policy focused on the latter stage of this process – research impact – is limited by methodological difficulties around attributing impacts, establishing causal links between research and impacts, and the long time lags involved in research achieving impacts. Although much of the policy discussion in Australia around maximising the benefits of research has focused on research impact, developing relevant and scalable metrics has remained difficult.

By contrast, the earlier stages of the research engagement process – collaboration and knowledge translation – are easily identifiable, limited, broadly common across disciplines and readily available. Data on funding from partner organisations and activities such as joint research projects with private and public sector partners are already collected or held by government for a range of other purposes. Importantly, there is evidence that engagement activities between universities and the private sector are precursors to realising broader economic impacts.

The Knowledge Translation Metrics project examined data reported to government via the ERA and Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) exercises as proxies for knowledge translation and collaboration. Led by ATSE, a steering committee – with representatives of the four Learned Academies, the Departments of Industry and Education, the Australian Research Council and the university sector – considered a number of models using previously reported ERA and HERDC data. This produced options for establishing metrics across the university research sector – both in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and humanities and social sciences (HASS) disciplines. The report from the project has been delivered to the Department of Education and is being considered as part of the government’s policy agenda.

ATSE strongly believes that Australia’s competitiveness relies on continued innovation in our industries and public sector. This innovation must capitalise on the results of publicly funded research, and is reliant on collaboration and engagement between researchers and the wider community.

By properly measuring and acknowledging institutions that perform well in this regard, Australia can lift its research engagement and impact and, ultimately, its national productivity.

Prof Peter Gray FTSE is a Director and Vice President of the Academy and Chair of the Knowledge Translation Metrics project steering committee.