Modern Australian

Who cares about university research? The answer depends on its impacts

  • Written by Martin Bliemel, Associate Dean of Research; Course Director, Diploma in Innovation, University of Technology Sydney
Who cares about university research? The answer depends on its impacts

This essay is based on the Impact at UTS podcast series. The audio series examines how a diverse range of researchers embed knowledge exchange and impact in their research strategy.

Universities are facing great financial challenges and a swathe of redundancy programs is under way. Many senior academics are retiring early. Those that remain are picking up more teaching load. Research and teaching programs are both at risk of being seriously compromised.

Beyond the individual loss for people who have built careers exploring important research challenges, what may be less apparent is our collective loss as a society if academics are deprived of the time to explore tough questions that we need answers for.

Read more: As universities face losing 1 in 10 staff, COVID-driven cuts create 4 key risks

It might be hard to look beyond the immediate crisis in higher education, but universities will remain crucial social institutions. Now is the right time to continue the conversation about what they are and who they serve. And what are their impacts?

As part of our Impact at UTS podcast series, we spoke to researchers about how they navigate collaboration, engagement – with communities, industry and government – and impact. The breadth and depth of these impact stories reveal many inter-related insights, which we present later in this article. (You can listen to a full podcast episode at the end.)

Why does university research impact matter?

Universities are uniquely placed to explore complex problems that our collective future depends on. They can do so in a rigorous, ethical, collaborative and enduring way. Peer review regulates subjectivity and biases.

Investing the time to confront complex problems is often beyond the appetite and patience of a corporate agenda driven by other imperatives, including short-term survival. Nationally, Australia continues to lag in OECD rankings for research and development. This is obviously not desirable, and it’s a symptom of bigger problems in the university sector.

Read more: Budget's $1bn research boost is a welcome first step. Billions more, plus policy reforms, will be needed

The sector has rightly begun to question inward-looking measures of success and KPIs, which are largely based on quantifying research grants in and publications out. Only other researchers care about such things.

Here, we ask why is the research worth doing in the first place? What does it contribute beyond the esteem of academic colleagues?

The COVID-19 crisis has intensified the need to revisit the relationship universities have with society. Every academic needs to grapple with questions of why or when research should be prioritised over teaching and upskilling job seekers and job keepers.

Read more: Universities have gone from being a place of privilege to a competitive market. What will they be after coronavirus?

The challenges of assessing impact

While a shift away from crude input-output metrics towards research impact sounds appealing, assessing impact is much harder to do at scale.

And, perhaps more importantly, many academics are highly specialised. Some are amazing curriculum designers, teachers, grant writers, researchers, report writers, administrators, team managers, stakeholder engagers (if that’s a real word) etc. So, among academics, it’s only natural that some will focus on impact more than others.

Academics create value in myriad ways, and rarely do you find a “purple squirrel” – someone who excels at the full spectrum of work to be done. But, if impact is increasingly relevant to all academics, then a shift towards impact opens questions about performing as a team or individually.

There is also understandable scepticism and change resistance to the “impact agenda” among academics. They are already time-poor and highly scrutinised. Any additional reporting and accountability requirements, such as the Australian Research Council’s engagement and impact assessment, feel like the last straw for academics, especially those who are busy chasing yesterday’s KPIs.

The research engagement and impact agenda needs to be worked through with great care. For a start, measurement of anything indelibly changes it, and new KPIs can introduce perverse responses and behaviours.

Focusing on engagement and impact also reinvigorates important value questions. There is always a risk that fundamental research is viewed as having no foreseeable impact. Yet it has given us so many unexpected and significant societal benefits.

A classic example is radio-astronomy research by CSIRO and Macquarie University leading to wi-fi, which is an enabling technology for further innovations. Similarly, there was no guarantee of success at the start of decades of experimenting involved in innovations like HPV vaccines, cochlear implants and solar panels. Each innovation has directly and indirectly improved millions of lives.

Binary thinking about research versus impact, or applied versus fundamental research, is misguided, as societal benefits rely upon both sides of those coins. The tension of research versus teaching is similarly unproductive.

Learning from researchers with impact

We can look to outliers or “purple squirrels” to learn about research excellence with impact. Robert Langer is an outstanding example. One of his ventures, Moderna, is a leader in developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

Langer’s lab at MIT has generated thousands of articles and patents, raising billions of dollars to spin out over 40 companies. This work includes treating multiple forms of cancer, endometriosis, eczema, vocal cord damage and more, and has affected the lives of billions. His papers with industry collaborators are also discussed more widely than papers published by academics only.

Research by Robert Langer and his colleagues is estimated to have affected the lives of 2 billion people.

Global outliers like Langer are certainly inspiring, but can feel inaccessible for the average researcher.

For our Impact at UTS podcast series, we spoke to highly acclaimed but more accessible researchers about how they navigate collaboration, engagement and impact. We cast a wide net. Their work spans a variety of disciplines and issues, including rebuilding reefs, Indigenous rights and self-determination, beach safety, solving crime through trace detection, access to clean water, autonomous vehicles, and more.

What did these researchers tell us?

These impact stories consistently reveal many inter-related insights, including:

  • researchers’ desires to effect positive change align with the shift towards valuing benefits

  • researchers can be faithful to standards of academic rigour, ethics and independence while having material impact

  • complex problems demand multi- or transdisciplinary approaches, which often have engagement built in

  • engagement starts before a research project is formalised, and continues during and after it — gone are the days of throwing mono-disciplinary publications behind a paywall in the hope someone will discover it, make sense of the jargon and bridge the research-policy gap

  • engagement is based on shared values, which become shared language and shared understandings

  • formal agreements are important, but impactful collaboration is far from being transactional or contractual

  • it’s a team effort — there might be one chief investigator, but it’s often a team of researchers and several non-university stakeholders.

Fulfilling universities’ public purpose

These insights reveal a more holistic and integrated picture of research engagement with communities, industry and government. By engaging with research end-users early, researchers get a real understanding of the problem. This helps inform their research, leading to greater impact and adoption.

The lessons learned should resonate with academics from any discipline or stage of career. They are also useful to non-academics as they select which academic or university to reach out to.

Despite the COVID-19 chaos, what endures is that universities are institutions with a public purpose. In Australia, publicly funded agencies employ a significant proportion of the research workforce. University research thus plays a critical role in addressing complex problems and national needs.

Read more: $7.6 billion and 11% of researchers: our estimate of how much Australian university research stands to lose by 2024

A focus on the benefits that accrue from university research provides an opportunity for universities to enhance public trust and confidence in the value of their research. An engaged and supportive public may just be the most effective pathway towards creating the political will to adopt coherent, evidence-based policy.

For researchers, greater impact contributes to a virtuous research life cycle, including more sustainable funding. Last, but certainly not least, being able to draw on excellent research with impact in the classroom creates cutting-edge education and lifelong learning experiences in a way that more authentically includes the voices of the people impacted by the research.

Subscribe to the Impact at UTS podcast on your favourite podcast app: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher.

Impact at UTS was made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology Sydney – an audio production house that combines academic research with audio storytelling for real-world impact.

Authors: Martin Bliemel, Associate Dean of Research; Course Director, Diploma in Innovation, University of Technology Sydney

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