Vicki Thomson, Australian Technology Network: Exploring avenues for greater industry oriented research


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Vicki Thomson, Executive Director, Australian Technology Network delivered this presentation at the 2013 Towards Research Excellence conference. In its 3rd year event attendees met under the theme “From Impact to Excellence – An analysis of the challenges confronting the research sector.” From the challenges of refining regulatory frameworks toward research standards to the concepts of measuring real world impact and funding/investment returns, bridging the gap between current research output and productivity whilst securing the long term sustainability of the research workforce, remains a critical priority for securing Australia’s future prosperity. For more information about the annual event, please visit the conference website:

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Vicki Thomson, Australian Technology Network: Exploring avenues for greater industry oriented research

  1. 1. 9 December 2013 Exploring avenues for greater industry oriented research Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. Now I know it is only good manners to say that every time you are invited to contribute to a conference, however, I do happen to mean it. In fact, those who know me well, will already understand that I don’t miss any opportunity available to me to state my views - and the views of the Australian Technology Network, as they relate to greater industry orientated research. So here I am, with a captive audience in front of me. Wonderful. You have no idea how much I appreciate and enjoy that! Because it is both a personal passion of mine to achieve excellence in industry orientated research, and it is also an ATN determination to do so. And we intend to. We are committed to this happening. Yet, sometimes as I begin to think about delivering a speech to an audience such as yourselves, I wonder why it is even something I am here speaking about. Surely it shouldn’t need speeches? Surely it’s a no-brainer, not something we have to continue to lobby for; to have debates and arguments about? To me - and to the ATN - it is simply common sense, something critically important to Australia’s future, and something that should already be happening as a matter of course. For this not to be the case seems ludicrous, inexplicable and detrimental to Australia. When you strip it down to basics, all that is really being asked of us……………. ………is that Australian Universities deliver the research and innovation needed via strong and compatible relationships with industry to enable both to achieve greater things on behalf of Australia. Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  2. 2. Basic common sense really. We are being asked to deliver positive outcomes for the national and global economy by synchronising much of our research and research personnel with the present and future needs of the engine that drives our national wealth and wellbeing. That wealth in turn drives our standard of living, and our opportunities - both personally and professionally - and obviously, as part of the global economy. What could be more exciting and logical? Now, before I continue - some facts on the current state of play    Australian investment in R&D is a reasonably healthy 2.2 per cent to GDP – which places us 11 out of 30 in the OECD and just under the OECD average of 2.37 per cent (2010 figures.) 27 per cent of Australia’s R&D spend occurs in Higher Education - well above the OECD average of 19 percent. Of the 8.1 researchers per thousand works in Australia – nearly 60 per cent are in the university system and only 30 per cent in business enterprise As I, on behalf of the ATN, have worked hard to prosecute a concentration on relevant impact research with industry engagement and alignment, I have found some illuminating facts which are of concern. I hope as I work through them here, you will all agree that what you are hearing is problematic and should be changed as quickly as possible. For example…. I am sure a number of you have said, if only to yourselves, what is it that industry constantly whinges about? Why aren’t they happy with what Universities deliver? Why so often would they prefer NOT to deal with us even when 60 per cent of Australia’s researchers are based in Universities? How can there be such a disconnect? It certainly defies logic that we should be left out of the equation - pretty much ignored for the most part by industry - especially given where researchers are concentrated in Australia, compared with, by the way, 80 per cent of researchers in the US being in the business sector? To back up this view; does it surprise you to know that - according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics - only 3.1 per cent of ‘innovation-active’ businesses in Australia come to Universities for information or ideas for innovation? Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  3. 3. 3.1 per cent when 60 per cent of Australia’s researchers are within Universities. Frankly I find that shocking. So let’s delve behind that rather ghastly statistic. For example, would it also surprise you to know that there actually is a significant misalignment in Australia between University research and industry research when it is analysed by discipline?  In 2010, business spent 52 per cent of its research and development outlay on engineering.  Universities spent 9 per cent.  In 2010 business spent 28 per cent of its research and development outlay on ICT.  Universities spent 4 per cent.  Meanwhile Universities spent 38 per cent of their research expenditure on medical and health sciences and biological sciences.  The comparable figure from business was 6 per cent. These examples indicate Universities are not working in alignment with economic drivers. It is hardly possible for Universities to be any further away from the priorities of business and industry and Australia’s economic drivers. How can this have occurred? It has been stated by some , that this is because the current University peer review system without strategic direction - , has produced an academic discipline profile similar to the US and the UK but without the industry drivers in Australia to justify it. This difference, this chasm, clearly creates a significant tension between the research supply side (Universities) and the research demand side (business and industry) because obviously where Universities do research is where they produce their research graduates. We can produce the best of the best in A but if business and industry and importantly Australia need the best of the best in B then we are failing, no matter how brilliant we are at A. It is laid out for us where business and industry are focussed and it is NOT where Universities have focussed their research intent. Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  4. 4. We are operating in an academic bubble that is irrelevant to where our - dare I say it “customers” need to be and what our customers want - to ensure they achieve their goals. If we were a commercial business operating in this way we would not survive. Our product would go stale on the shelves. By way of example, while we don’t have figures for Australia, a 2013 Nature Biotechnology paper indicated that in 2011 in the US, for Science and Engineering disciplines , for every 12 PhDs graduated, one academic position opened up – that is 11 out of 12 must og out into ‘industry’ Now this may be ok for the US where they have a better strategic alignment of industry/university research efforts so that PhDs have a much better chance of going to industry research in their field of expertise, or to move sideways into related roles involving their research expertise. However - If we use those figures for Australia – and we do need to know Australian figures – industry misalignment means that 11 out of 12 PhDs produced in Australia have been trained in the wrong discipline. So where are they going? This is an almost unthinkable wastage. It is also an almost unthinkable misalignment within a nation that is crying out for innovation and productivity increases in business and industry. When it’s put like that, you simply can’t escape comprehending the frustration of industry and business. We don’t have what they want. We MUST have what they want. But there’s more to come. It’s not just in the research disciplines that there is a disconnect, but also in outcomes. By SEO code or outcome area, business spends 84 per cent of its investment in five areas: mineral resources, energy, manufacturing, ICT and commercial services and tourism. In those areas the Universities spend just 16 per cent. So, could it be more clear that we do need greater industry orientated research where ‘orientated’ is used in the broad sense, not just meaning direct industry research? It should be added that the issues we face in achieving this are not only structural as I have illustrated to you by the misalignment of research activity and outcomes; but also cultural. Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  5. 5. The ATN’s Research Impact Industry Advisory Board comprises senior representatives from Rio Tinto, Chevron, KPMG, Schlumberger, the Salvation Army and the Australian Industry Group. They have told us some hard truths I would like to share with you.  The university research sector is largely opaque to industry – particularly SMEs. From my perspective that is embarrassing.  University researchers do not understand the demands of industry – and here do we need to ask if this is because so many researchers simply don’t want to?  University researchers seem to consider industry engagement as career limiting – that in particular makes me cringe. Talk about academic ivory towers!  Universities are terrible at communicating their research outcomes – and here I will expand. Last year the ATN and the Go8 conducted a large scale research impact trial which showed that 87 per cent of the 162 case studies submitted had considerable impact or better. But - one of the main findings of the trial report was, that when academics were asked to report on impact, in many cases they focussed on academic measures and outputs, and did not adequately describe the link between the underpinning research and impact. A Universities Australia survey revealed there were similar issues with academics communicating research results to the public. This survey uncovered that, as a result, less than 50 per cent of the community have any awareness of University research. It also uncovered that there is a general view, while the value of pure research is appreciated, that Universities should focus their research on producing practical outcomes. And backing up the evidence of the ATN’s Research Impact Industry Advisory Board which gave us the hard home truths, the ATN then surveyed its own researchers so we could see for ourselves if they viewed industry engagement as a career limiting move. What can I say! The results were dispiriting. While 75 per cent reported direct impact from their research, and 50 per cent indirect impact; 70 per cent also expressed the opinion that the sole national stocktake of research – ERA – was driving researcher behaviour toward excellence and away from impact. Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  6. 6. While ERA is widely accepted as a robust measure of academic/peer review quality, it is also fact that in the absence of a counter-balance for impact, it will continue to drive researcher behaviour away from a culture of industry engagement - despite what some may say. Indeed, just last week the Australian Research Council released an independent review it commissioned to review ERA - The Benefits Realisation Review. That review found - and I quote: “It was noted during consultations that, at least to date, ERA has had only a limited influence on business interest and philanthropic support. It goes on to say that – again quoting……. “ERA results are not greatly used by business to identify potential research partners.” The review’s own survey results indicated that just 11 per cent of universities surveyed reported that their ERA ratings had led to interest from industry partners and philanthropic foundations. Make no mistake – ERA is important and the ATN - representing as it does - the highest growth in research excellence in the sector - according to ERA, is a strong advocate for this assessment framework However - it DOES NOT LEAD TO GREATER ENGAGEMENT BETWEEN INDUSTRY AND UNIVERSITIES WHEN IT COMES TO RESEARCH and that is the missing piece in the puzzle. In effect, our structures and culture are working against what is best for our sector, for business and industry and ultimately for the nation. And I can keep giving you examples of where this wrong is being perpetuated. The research block grant system for example, totally discourages a culture of industry engagement and research impact. Only 6 per cent of its allocation is on direct engagement with industry (via industry income). But let’s move to what can be done. What are the solutions for creating greater industry orientated research?  Obviously addressing the misalignment of industry and University research activity is paramount.  There must be incentives provided in the University system for researchers to pursue and receive recognition for industry oriented research because we have a mindset that needs altered urgently within Universities.  And there must be better communication between University researchers and industry. We need to embrace them and they need to stop feeling let down by us. Because we know Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  7. 7. already that when universities and industry work successfully together the results are quite simply - amazing. It would not surprise you to know that the ATN - and a growing number of universities and industry stakeholders in this country - believes that a key element in all of the above is the introduction of a research impact assessment, and in particular - evidence-based case studies evaluated by predominantly industry experts.  An impact assessment mechanism would provide the necessary counter balance to ERA  And it is the strong opinion of the ATN’s Research Impact Industry Advisory Board - which remember is mostly the most senior executives in industry –that rigorous case studies of research impact are essential for industry to understand how the University research sector works, and also to train the University research sector how to communicate with industry, Government and the community. In late November, Senator Arthur Sinodinos in his first major interview as the new Federal Government’s assistant Treasurer, made a strong statement about commercialisation of research. The core of his statement was that the Government wanted to encourage more Australian companies to commercialise innovation, and that the Government would look at ways to overcome gaps in the capital markets for innovation. He said Australia needed “that blending of commercial enterprise and innovation backed up by strong research.” “We have to build on our strengths in areas where we can create a market niche through innovation and the use of knowledge because that is how you create a sustainable competitive advantage”. “How do Governments come to the table to help with that?” Sinodinos also stated that productivity was a major challenge for Australia - that Australia would have to double our rate of productivity growth if we are to maintain the sort of incomes we have had in previous decades. There was much for our sector to take away from that first major interview, not least the clear and strong message that research commercialisation is a Government priority. Again ERA has not helped this process as is mentioned in the aforementioned report released last week. Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E:
  8. 8. Whilst noting that ‘there can be significant lags between research being undertaken and the commercialisation of that research’ - the review of ERA found that - ‘…at least to date, ERA had not had an impact on research application’ And that ’….…. No university surveyed for this review reported that ERA had led to an increase in research commercialisation. Given our current position it seems we are at a fork in the road. We can either overcome the issues I have spoken about and become part of this Government drive by seeing ourselves as part of the mainstream and as a valued partner with industry and business. Or, we can steadily lose our influence and relevance to the nation’s advancement, be sidelined in our ivory towers and most probably continue to lose funding. To the ATN and to me the answer is surely a no brainer... Further information: Vicki Thomson – 0417 808 472 Vicki Thomson @ThomsonVicki ATN: GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 P: (08) 8302 9135 E: