We must align our university research with Australia’s strategic intent


Publish or Perish? (Photo: Whiskey Monday via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Academics often have lofty ideals about passion-driven curiosity in designing research projects. But these ideals are rarely practical. Changing times demand a changing focus in our approach to publicly funded research.

The ‘publish or perish’ metric drives many researchers to trendy topics that have little consequence in terms of Australia’s place in the world. In fact, the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) program has had the opposite effect, with Australian research journals rarely meeting the desired first quartile rankings that are essential for promotion in the academy.

The Prime Minister recently stated that the ‘publish or perish’ metric must give way to the commercialisation imperative. While this may be possible in some disciplines like the industrial sciences, this too is a flawed metric. And the potential for commercialisation in our current public-funded research system is a nightmare of bureaucratic red tape that will take more than good intentions to overcome.

Take the national Science and Research Priorities administered by the Department of Industry as a case in point. Third on the list is transport, which includes policy and other areas that are related to the social rather than the industrial or natural sciences. 

Health is the ninth priority. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the science is fine. But the social and political issues have caused more problems than the natural sciences can explain in any meaningful way.

To be sure, energy and other policies are underpinned by science, but the practical approaches to deploying the science are beset by politics to ‘satisfice’ rather than deliver the most efficient or effective solution.

To take the national research priorities seriously, universities need to be incentivised to align research centres that establish collaborative networks focused on publishing research not only in the best journals but in Australian journals that are open access and available for anyone to use for free. It is rather strange that publicly funded Australian research outputs are hidden behind a commercial paywall and often in overseas journals.

When I was in Canada in 2007 a Harvard professor suggested that the best way to commercialise research is for companies to hire the best PhD graduates in the relevant field and to pay them to develop the company’s own intellectual property. Partnering with universities is such a barrier to commercialisation that it is hardly worth the effort.

Australia’s track record with commercialising our own competitive advantages leaves much to be desired. Take for instance the native macadamia nut. The US produced the most of this native crop until Australia gained ground up until 2015, only to lose the title to South Africa recently.

Consider also the CSIRO’s development of ‘fast wifi’ technology. Our world-leading research organisation had to fight its way through US courts to claim fees from their 1996 patent. If a government research agency has problems commercialising, what hope have our lumbering universities?

We are entering a stage in our strategic situation that will rely heavily on the higher education system if we are to address the challenges of the future. Our submariners need PhDs in nuclear engineering or physics. We need social and political approaches to effectively deploy scientific solutions. We need a cadre of educators sympathetic to our national priorities. And we need to provide incentives to keep the best educators in the sector.

Changing trade and security relations in the post-pandemic world order stress the importance of commercialising research. But so too is the necessity for language skills in Japanese, Hindi, Chinese, and Indonesian. Australians are notoriously monolingual, and this remains a barrier to commercialisation in the region.

There is scope for passion-driven research and academic freedom, and such ideals do not have to be at odds with the national research priorities. But if we are to ensure our future prosperity and security, commercialisation is one of many approaches to address the end of free market globalisation.

Rather than force all academic disciplines to commercialise, the key to integrating our research outputs is to align universities with our national research priorities. Such research must also prioritise open access publication in Australian journals if the outputs are to be useful.