Public investment in academic research delivers jobs, growth and prosperity and this is a key driver of the Federal Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). One of the pillars of NISA is to use university funding settings to encourage closer ties between universities and the public and private sectors and improve research engagement and impact. Given how quickly universities have reacted to government research policy in the past, KPMG’s Dr Tim Cahill discusses the potential unintended consequences, and how universities can mitigate them.
In the 1990s, the Federal Government introduced a research quantum, effectively rewarding universities for the number of publications by academics. Insofar as it aimed to build a critical mass of research activity, the policy was a success – the number of publications went up. But an unintended consequence was that academics published in lower quality journals.
By the mid-2000s, the Research Quality Framework (RQF), and then Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), were developed to rectify this – a comprehensive evaluation of the quality of university research. Again, as far as the immediate policy aim to focus academics on which journals they published in, it was successful, and Australian universities have jumped up international rankings since ERA was introduced. An unintended consequence has been that researchers focused on publishing in high impact journals to the detriment of other missions, including engaging in problem solving with the private and public sector.
The NISA measures will focus on research engagement and impact, through financial rewards – via changes to the Research Block Grants – and peer esteem – the Engagement and Impact Pilot Evaluation – which are the two currencies of academic work.
As before, while the immediate policy objectives may be achieved, there may be unintended consequences. What are they, and how can we mitigate against them in advance?
The tenets of academic freedom are not always compatible with the motivations of research partners and the simple fact is that more research funded by vested interest will create more challenges for academic integrity. There are many examples where researchers have manipulated results, let standards slide, or allowed publicly funded research to disappear behind commercial in confidence agreements.
We need rigorous policies around transparency and conflict of interest, and processes in place to investigate research misconduct wherever it is suspected. Tapping into the expertise base, not just the research base.
Everybody knows the OECD chart showing Australia last for research collaborations, however, this is only half the story – read the rest of that report and you will see another chart showing where researchers are employed. As opposed to, for example, Korea, where 77 percent of researchers are employed in the private sector, in Australia, this is only 30 percent, with the majority employed in universities. No matter how many supply side policies targeting universities we have, there may be limited demand given the private sector is not trained to understand the value of research, nor how to apply it to fuel innovation, productivity and efficiency. Creating demand may initially mean tapping into the expertise of academics in a particular field, and not just their cutting edge research.
We need to focus on the skills and knowledge that academics can add to industry, and not just opportunities to commercialise their research.
To address the skills gap, we need greater cross-pollination of careers between the different sectors. At present, around half of university research funding from Federal Government is delivered directly via ARC and NHMRC Grants, and these indirectly are the basis for 35 percent of funding through the Research Block Grants (RBG). As a result, the academic career path is predicated on high impact journal articles, as this improves the chances of getting ARC and NHMRC grants. Researchers who have worked in industry find it difficult to break into this world.
We need to develop flexible career paths that allow researchers to move between the public and private sector and universities, which means working out ways to value industry experience and expertise.
Another way to cross-pollinate sectors and build demand is via joint industry-university higher degree research programs. Such programs simultaneously train our best and brightest graduates in academic and industry settings. The outcomes include strong networks, knowledge spill overs, and speeding up the path from insight to innovation. Uniquely, a 3-year doctorate program provides a timeframe for industry to devote to a single problem of high impact that may otherwise get lost among commercial demands. This is especially important as Government has ceased its Joint Research Engagement (JRE) cadetships.
We need new programs that train and embed researchers in industry who understand the value research and can apply research findings.
Conservatively it’s estimated that 1 in every 5 dollars spent on university research comes from teaching revenue as the full costs of research are not fully funded. One advantage of industry research collaborations is that they can be fully costed in a way that ARC and NHMRC funding isn’t. However, the Government is creating a new market where universities will compete with each other for this work, which may lead to under-pricing jobs, which in turn would require increased subsidies from teaching portfolios. In a competitive setting, deficits may quickly outpace revenues.
We need to model the expected growth and put in place mechanisms to ensure that teaching agendas are not further affected by research agendas.
The R&D Tax Incentive scheme is still the only game in town for business R&D. But what about universities? Around 43 percent of Australian researchers – those in the social sciences, humanities and arts – are effectively ineligible as research service providers. This seems like a missed opportunity for an economy built around service industries. We need to unlock innovation in our services sector through collaboration.
Universities must understand how to best position themselves under the R&D Tax Incentive scheme, and provide alternate mechanisms to encourage business to seek their services in social sciences and humanities (which includes research in supply chain, logistics, management, and finance amongst others).
Research management systems were built under a policy setting where publications mattered, and research income from industry was an afterthought. While a university can quickly tell how many articles have been published in Nature in the past 12 months, questions about research engagement, like:
‘who have we collaborated with in the past?’
‘are most of our partners local, interstate or international?’ or
‘does this matter to funding amounts and opportunities?’
are beyond the capacity of many systems at the moment. Anecdotally, the industry notes that the current ARC pilot data is showing how data capture, storage and reporting in this space has been neglected over the years.
Universities need new research management systems and reporting to have access to relevant and timely insights and to meet new regulatory and strategic needs.
Over the last decade I have seen the impact of research policy on government and universities in Australia first-hand. As we shift into a new phase of policy settings that focus on the engagement and impact of our nation’s research we must consider how university operations will play a role. If we fail to think through the unintended consequences then we may limit the impact that research can have on our national prosperity.