Chapter 6: The brightest researchers
- Developing the research capacity of staff
- Understanding our research strengths
- Focusing our research activity
- Creating organisational structures that support our research
- Dissemination and knowledge transfer
Our vision for research at the University of Sydney is that it should build upon the Sydney tradition outlined in Chapter 1, a tradition of work that is both academically excellent and also keen to engage with the issues that most concern our society, for the benefit of Australia and the wider world. This tradition has deep roots in the University and we have produced work in a range of fields that is recognised internationally, not only for its quality, but also for the impact that it has had in improving the lives of individuals and communities. In fields as diverse as robotics, astrophysics, philosophy, history and medical imaging, the University produces research of the internationally highest calibre. Remaining true to this tradition has implications for both the kind of research in which we should be engaged and its quality.
The University community values any research that makes an original and significant contribution to knowledge and understanding. Our commitment to academic excellence means that we see knowledge and understanding as intrinsically valuable.
Nevertheless, we believe that, in order to be true to our tradition, the research of the University of Sydney must strike a balance between four sets of contrasting characteristics. First, our work should have disciplinary depth and cross-disciplinary reach; second, it should include work in both established fields and in emerging areas of research; third, our work should both shape and respond to the public policy agenda; fourth, it should include the most fundamental work as well as work much closer to praxis and, where possible, support the dissemination of work of this latter kind through knowledge transfer and commercialisation. In addition, the research of the University must aspire to a particular quality.
Before outlining our principal strategies for maintaining and enhancing research of this type, it is important to consider two of these hallmarks of Sydney research in greater depth: the balance between disciplinary and cross-disciplinary research that we hope to maintain, and the quality of work to which we aspire. Each of these is crucial to our vision of the University’s work.
In order to pursue academic excellence and to see our work make a contribution to Australia and the wider world, we need both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work. Crucially, this also means supporting the work of both lone scholars and teams of collaborators, for while cross-disciplinary work usually implies the latter, disciplinary work is often carried out by individual researchers. By ‘cross-disciplinary’ we here include both work that brings perspectives together from many disciplines (‘multidisciplinary’) and work that attempts to incorporate knowledge and techniques from other disciplines (‘interdisciplinary’). The trajectory of research over the last hundred years has been towards greater specialisation, parsing complex scientific and social questions into more manageable forms and refining methodologies to address them. These methodologies have been at the core of the work of disciplinary communities and they have great epistemological power. But addressing broader questions, and in particular the questions to which our society seeks answers, often requires that these various methodologies are brought together in cross-disciplinary work. Moreover, when these methodologies encounter one another in cross-disciplinary work, new methodologies are shaped and new disciplines emerge. There is thus an interplay of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work: the latter is not possible without the former, while the former often gives rise to new, or emergent, disciplines. An appropriate balance between disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work is therefore important to be true to both parts of our tradition.
One question that sometimes arises is whether there is virtue in having cross-disciplinary teams established in the one institution. In other words, should we care whether there is cross-disciplinary work at the University, or is it sufficient that our researchers are engaged in cross-disciplinary work, wherever that work might be located?
Academics find collaborators all over the world, and the researchers of the University of Sydney are no different. Where researchers at Sydney engage broadly in collaborative research it is largely focused on external collaborations. We have relatively low levels of research grants and publications that involve more than one faculty (0–14 percent of grants for all faculties and 0–20 percent of publications, with highest scores for faculties such as Dentistry, Health Sciences, and Nursing and Midwifery for which the research tradition is relatively new; see Appendix 16). By contrast, international collaboration by Sydney researchers is impressive with some 32 percent of Sydney’s academic publications co-authored with one or more collaborators from outside Australia. (The United States, the United Kingdom, China, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, New Zealand, Italy and the Netherlands are the top 10 countries from which our collaborators are drawn measured by numbers of publications.) Sydney researchers are also involved in multinational collaborative research programs, including several funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the European Union, particularly in health and medical research, but also in the physical sciences. We also have extensive research linkages with leading international universities throughout the world through our membership of three major international network groups: the Academic Consortium 21 (AC21), the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) and the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). These forums provide a platform for connecting our researchers with other leading researchers through contact groups, and have given rise to a number of major collaborative projects that would otherwise not have happened.
In one sense, collaboration with researchers outside the University, and particularly overseas, is extremely important. Having our researchers entrenched firmly within global research networks is important for ensuring that our research is of an internationally competitive standard; seeking the best in the world for multidisciplinary collaboration is one way to ensure excellence.
However, we believe that for interdisciplinary research to flourish, where transformational impacts often arise from researchers in one discipline learning the language or methodology of another, it is essential to provide environments where researchers can come together formally and informally on a regular (daily) basis and learn from each other. Notwithstanding the advances of information and communications technology to facilitate collaboration, this is more likely to happen where researchers from different disciplines are working together in the same institution and in physical proximity. For this reason we think it a priority for the University to reduce any barriers, to collaboration with other researchers in cross-disciplinary teams within the institution itself, and to increase incentives to do so. Indeed, we perceive that there may be a bias in the University towards external collaboration – even where higher quality work is being done in the relevant field within the University itself – that we ought to overcome. Our strategy for facilitating cross-disciplinary work within the University is outlined later in this chapter.
Most importantly, all our work, whether disciplinary or cross-disciplinary, in an established or emergent field, responding to or setting the public policy agenda, or foundational or applied, must aspire to a particular quality. This is that it makes an original and significant contribution to knowledge or understanding at an internationally competitive level for someone working in the relevant field at the relevant stage of their career.
It is important to unpack this notion of an internationally competitive level. In a following section we discuss various ways of measuring the quality of our work, but it is important to understand what it is that we are trying, with different proxies, to measure. By an internationally competitive level, we do not necessarily mean that the work must be internationally recognised. We have many researchers working in fields of purely local or national interest. What we mean is that the work should have a methodological and analytical rigour that would be recognised by researchers in the field as characteristic of the highest quality work, or display a degree of creativity that is recognised by the quality measures of its discipline area. We believe that this should be the standard to which we hold ourselves accountable, both as individuals and as communities of researchers. It should be the standard to which we aspire in our process for confirmation to continuing appointment (‘tenure’). It should be the standard to which we aspire in our performance management processes for academics and in our reviews of the work of faculties. Importantly, however, it must be applied with an eye to both the field in which the researcher (or group of researchers) is working and their career stage.
If we are to sustain and enhance our tradition of producing work of the kind and quality outlined in the previous section, we cannot take our continuing high level of performance for granted. Indeed, although indicators such as success in competition for research grants may be strongly affected by cyclical variations, the external data suggests that some of our traditional research strengths may be vulnerable. Against external measures of excellence, our performance is static or declining in some of our traditional areas of strength. In some areas we are declining in weighted higher degree completions and being outcompeted in total research income and publications by some other Group of Eight universities. We are experiencing a flat or declining competitive position for Category One funding for some faculties; and we are seeing declining numbers of higher degree completions per academic staff member at level B and above (see Appendix 17).
In order to maintain and improve our performance, we suggest that five issues need to be addressed as a matter of priority. These are that we need to: (i) develop the research capacity of our staff at all stages of their careers, but particularly at points of transition; (ii) develop an evidence-based understanding of our collective research strengths; (iii) focus our areas of research activity to create critical mass, to support emergent fields of research, and to respond to issues of national and international importance; (iv) move towards organisational structures that align with and support our areas of research strength in the disciplines and cross-disciplinary research areas; and (v) ensure that our systems of commercialisation effectively assist in the dissemination of the University’s research. Each of these strategies merits separate consideration.
Our statement of strategic purpose aspires to an environment in which the ‘brightest researchers’ can do research of the highest quality. We must create and sustain an enriching research environment, helping to build the research careers of our staff in an environment of first-class research, research training programs and infrastructure. In Chapter 3 we outlined the challenges we face in providing the needed facilities and infrastructure for internationally competitive research. Here specific consideration is given to support for the development of our researchers.
Within the University, developing the research capacity of staff has principally been the responsibility of the faculties, schools and institutes where the expertise and experience is best placed to identify and respond to needs. The University has, however, had a number of schemes to support researchers, particularly those facing challenges that can negatively impact on the development of their research work. For example, University funding is provided for bridging support for ‘near miss’ Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant winners to enable momentum to be maintained for a subsequent application; and ‘gap year’ salary support is also provided for ARC- and NHMRC-funded fellows who miss out on a subsequent fellowship. We have a number of initiatives to recognise and support researchers with particular needs so they can develop to their potential: the Brown Fellowships support researchers re-establishing careers after significant caring responsibilities; the Thompson Fellowships address the under-representation of women in senior academic positions; the Laffan Fellowships support researchers with disabilities; and the first stage of a comprehensive strategy to support Indigenous researchers noted in Chapter 5 will begin over the next six months. In addition, the University’s learning and development unit (Learning Solutions) provides assistance through both University-wide programs and support of individual faculty initiatives.
Desirably, however, we would have a more comprehensive University-wide and data-informed strategy for identifying and developing research-able students and staff at all levels. There are (at least) six capacity-building initiatives we need to consider that can be grouped into two broad sets: four that focus on our future researchers and two that focus on our research staff. We propose that each of the possible initiatives should be explored first in dialogue between the Research Committee of the Senior Executive Group and the faculties, with some operating on a University-wide basis, and some on a faculty basis. These initiatives should be developed in consultation with the Academic Board.
Developing our future researchers
First, we must develop processes to spot talented researchers earlier. For example, we need to be more effective in identifying research potential in our undergraduates to build the cohort of promising students in our honours and other research training programs. This is a matter for faculties as they think through curriculum reform and the need to get students actively involved in research as early as possible in their university career. Second, and in a similar vein, we need to align talented undergraduate students with researchers in ways that lead to publications and reputation at the time of starting their PhD. These early publications are invaluable for the students’ subsequent competitiveness for external postdoctoral funding. Third, we need to employ more students in research-related activities that complement and extend their education so as to direct the time that they commit to paid employment to work that will give them a taste for research. This initiative could be led by SydneyTalent. Fourth, we need to think carefully across the University about postgraduate research training in the way outlined in Chapter 5.
Developing and extending our researchers
As a matter of priority, we propose a comprehensive review of our existing programs designed to develop researchers at all stages of their career, including early career researchers and researchers with special needs. This review should include the issue of support for researchers moving into positions of leadership, particularly in areas of research strength and for large-scale cross-disciplinary teams where we are seeking to build critical mass. Where these programs are proving successful we should expand them, where they are not we should reformulate them, and where we currently have no focused programs we must develop them. This analysis should be evidence-based as many schemes to support researchers that seem worthwhile in concept may not deliver in practice. For example, we have a University-wide visiting fellows program for collaboration with our staff, but only a very limited number of these collaborations (around 16 percent) have resulted in joint publications and even less (around 2 percent) have been awarded grants.
Three groups for which targeted internal funding may be particularly appropriate are emergent researchers, mid-career researchers and researchers assuming new leadership positions. Emergent researchers are researchers entering a new field of work in which support is needed to acquire additional skills or experience; supporting emergent researchers is crucial if we are to develop our capacity in cross-disciplinary work. Mid-career researchers may require similar assistance given that they often fall between grant processes designed for early career researchers on the one hand, and established researchers on the other. Importantly, however, we also need to provide support for more senior researchers to develop their broad leadership capabilities. These programs should have a specific focus on the requirements for leadership of larger efforts, where leadership is needed in areas of research strength, including for large-scale cross-disciplinary research programs and teams and in emerging areas where we are building critical mass. For example, the demands on research leaders in these positions will require them to have well-honed relationship management and communication skills, in addition to traditional management skills and their core research skills and knowledge. Our success in building critical mass in areas of strength will depend to a considerable extent on the quality of their leadership, and we must be prepared to assist their development and to continue to support them with structured and focused programs.
Second, there is a compelling argument to build on the effective elements of current programs to create a coordinated, University-wide induction, orientation and ongoing mentoring program, particularly for early career researchers. Through such a program, our early career researchers could also be linked into organisational structures and systems that provide a conducive environment for intellectual cross-pollination and identification of collaborators in other disciplines, something that is necessary to promote the emergence and formation of cross-disciplinary teams among this group. We propose that the Research Committee of the Senior Executive Group should develop centrally coordinated programs of early career researcher induction, orientation and mentoring. Indeed, we need to examine more consistent mentoring and other support processes across the University at all career stages that enable those identified to develop their skills. In particular, it is essential that research leaders develop the capacity both to identify and meet the development needs of their researchers and to initiate and lead cross-disciplinary projects. Our support processes for senior academic staff should address this need as a matter of priority.
It is both a legitimate public expectation, and essential for the development of our research strategy, that we can identify our areas of greatest research strength. We need an evidence-based understanding of the quality of our work. Without such an understanding, we could not even begin to discuss whether and where to focus our efforts or invest our resources; review our progress and evaluate our achievements; respond to emergent fields of research in ways that build upon existing strengths; nor respond to, or seek to influence, public policy agenda of various kinds. It is simply crucial that we agree University-wide instruments and timelines for the assessment of our performance in different areas.
These instruments for internal quality assessment, particularly for cross-disciplinary research, should dovetail with, but not be wholly determined by, the federal government’s Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) and new Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) program. A combination of HERDC and ERA data with publicly available citation data and reports can be used as an initial calibration of our competitive advantage and of the relative strengths of competitors, including their potential as collaborators, both nationally and internationally.
Limitations of current data sets
Of course, the accuracy and appropriateness of both the HERDC and ERA data, and of any data that we choose to collect, need to be carefully assessed. Two examples of the difficulties in existing ERA data are pertinent as cautionary tales, and while the examples are both drawn from the ERA trial, the issues are common with all data capture and analysis protocols. The first example concerns our ERA trial submission results for astronomical and space sciences. The recent trial submission for the Physical, Chemical and Earth Sciences concludes that while the University’s physical sciences are overall excellent, they are below both the Australian and Group of Eight average result for astronomical and space sciences. This is surprising given that this is an area that we have identified as a particular research strength. We have two Federation Fellows as well as an ARC Professorial Fellow publishing almost exclusively in this Field of Research code and submitted over 700 journal articles, of which 66 percent were in A* journals, and a total of 84 percent were in A* or A ranked journals. The Research Evaluation Committee noted in their feedback that this was “just below” the world benchmark, but that citation indicators were “well above the world benchmark.” Our below-average score of four therefore indicates that ERA scores appear to be heavily influenced by even a relatively small proportion of outputs in B or C ranked journals. The higher scores of much smaller astronomy and space sciences departments at some other leading universities indicates that ERA does not recognise and reward large prolific departments, where excellence is more likely to be ‘diluted’ than in a small department. Thus, a large research team may have 10 to 20 members who outperform any in a smaller team, but still receive a lower score. Given that we do have significant research strength, with respect to both disciplinary depth (astrophysics) and cross-disciplinary innovation (astrophotonics) and by acclamation of our national colleagues are the lead institution in an ARC Centre of Excellence application in this area, the ERA evaluation highlights how difficult it can be to have a robust data collection and evaluation process that leads to sensible conclusions. The potential fallout of inaccurate evaluations can be pondered as we consider Australia’s ambitions to be the site for the high-profile international Square Kilometre Array project and the potential for government misconception with regard to our abilities.
Another result from the Physical, Chemical and Earth Sciences trial was that no university in the country met the minimum volume threshold for assessment in theoretical and computational chemistry, a discipline in which Sydney has an extremely strong and active research focus, arguably one of the best in the world. Such an erroneous result in ERA could have serious implications for the standing of this discipline in Australia, impacting our ability to attract staff and students and to obtain federal government funding. A major contributor to the area is one of Australia’s most cited scientists, and another has been the recipient of the highly prestigious Welch Award in Chemistry. Although these and other researchers in theoretical and computational chemistry publish extensively in high-impact journals, few of these publications are in theoretical and computational chemistry journals, in part because the specialist journals in this field mostly have lower standing. Many articles from our theoretical and computational chemists are published in prestigious A*-ranked multidisciplinary journals (for example the Journal of the American Chemical Society), and the reassignment of these articles into four-digit field of research codes for assessment was done by analysis of the cited and citing references of each article. However, as theoretical and computational chemistry can be considered an ‘enabling’ science, articles in this field are often cited by the scientists who use their results in their own field of research, rather than other theoretical and computational chemists (for example a computational study of an enzyme is cited more by biomolecular chemists or biochemists than by other theoretical chemists). Similarly, articles in this field often cite references describing the problem that they are studying, rather than other theoretical and computational chemistry references. Other articles by theoretical and computational chemists are published in journals that have been assigned a too-narrow field of research code (for example, The Journal of Physical Chemistry A has been assigned to the field of research code 0306 Physical Chemistry, but in fact also publishes research relating to “molecular structure, quantum chemistry, and general theory”).
Moreover, even assuming that we arrive at robust HERDC and ERA data collection and analysis protocols in which we have ultimate confidence, we know they will not fully meet our needs for understanding our research strengths. First, they are backward-looking and two to eight years out of date. Contemporary, ongoing collection of validated evidence is needed, such as publication outputs. Second, we know that ERA does not, and in the foreseeable future will not, effectively evaluate cross-disciplinary research. Third, there is no necessary connection between the field of research codes under which ERA data are collected and either our organisational structure or academic strengths. Fourth, the ERA data are mostly quantitative, and while metrics such as income and citation data are useful in some fields, such as the natural sciences and medicine, they are less useful in fields within the humanities, for example. As Sydney has significant research strength in the humanities (for example, in philosophy, religion and history) additional peer-review over and above that provided for within ERA will be necessary in our internal assessments of performance. Finally, data on translational outcomes will not be tracked by ERA and will need a different monitoring system. This will be important, for example, to demonstrate Sydney’s strength in clinical research in the context of the NHMRC-led Health and Hospital Reform Initiative calling for a paradigm shift in evaluating medical research with a renewed focus on clinical translation. Developing reliable and replicable measures of the extent to which clinical research is translated into improved practice, and forms the basis of training and mentoring of future generations of health professionals, will be important in maintaining a leadership position.
New instruments for measuring research excellence
The new instruments and processes that we use to assess our research performance and measure quality will only be possible if we also develop information technology systems that capture and store accurate and comprehensive data from all areas of the University, and enable it to be analysed in ways that directly inform and support our research excellence strategy and optimise our capacity to identify, develop and maintain our focus on what is truly excellent.
While we currently collect research management data across the University, the information is fragmented. A recently introduced research management system has delivered significant capability for grants management; the first stages of its development were aimed at streamlining the business processes and providing an integrated and comprehensive system for grant data management, grant applications and post-award management. However, we are only part way through developing that system into an enterprise system for the capture, storage and analysis of research quality information that would provide a holistic and shared view of research at the University. Further development is needed to provide the sophisticated strategic capability we will need to assess our research strengths and transform the way we develop and manage research at Sydney. We propose that further development of this system should be regarded as a matter of priority for the planning period.
A fully developed solution will: (i) provide researchers, outside entities, and administrative and executive University staff with the ability to access a central information dashboard, permitting comprehensive research management, reporting and analysis; (ii) encompass a range of data including researcher profiles, research income and outputs, presented either individually or grouped at any hierarchical level; and (iii) be capable of providing responses to a wide range of queries about research expertise and strengths, to research collaborations and citation data, where appropriate. Critically it aligns with the University’s overall research excellence strategy, reflecting and supporting the new organisational, administrative and resource allocation models.
Of course, data capture and analysis is an important first step, but not the only part, of understanding our different research strengths. Also important is a qualitative assessment of different areas of our work, including areas of research less amenable to quantitative assessment such as the creative and performing arts and some humanities, and the development of an understanding as to its trajectory for improvement. To this end, we propose that the Academic Board and the Senior Executive Group should take forward its project of creating joint faculty reviews. Moreover, we propose that those reviews, while retaining the strength of the self-evaluation focus of the current Academic Board reviews, should also include some input from external reviewers with expertise in a research-relevant discipline. This external perspective is consistent with the quality paradigm outlined in the opening section of this chapter.
In an internationally and nationally competitive research environment, it is increasingly difficult to sustain high-quality research across the board and achieve the impact that we should. Greater concentration of research investment in key strategic research areas is both required and inevitable.
Universities have often been reluctant, particularly at an institution-wide level, to be strategic in the development of specific areas of research. This reluctance is for three good reasons. First, the most important research breakthroughs are often the product of serendipity and university administrators have been unsure of their ability to identify appropriate areas for investment. Second, resource allocation mechanisms in universities, such as our own new model, have often been designed to return resources to the faculties or schools that earn them, so as to increase the incentive for those faculties or schools to engage in activities that will ensure the ongoing financial health of the institution. Money invested in strategic research projects has often been seen as interfering with this system of incentives. Third, and most importantly, the principle of academic freedom requires that individual academics, and groups of academics, remain free to pursue those areas of enquiry that they find most compelling. These concerns are valid and university administrators should be reluctant to interfere with the creative evolution of an institution’s research expertise.
Nevertheless, taking account of the size of the funding available in Australia for research, it is not practical for the University to strive to conduct all research areas at the highest level. We believe that in the current environment, strengthening research excellence will require us to focus on developing critical mass and depth in a few (say three to seven) strategic areas, while supporting a larger group of areas (say 20 to 25) where we are performing cutting-edge research. This in turn requires more strategic decision-making about our focus in research than we have seen to date, and that these strategies should be devised both at the University level and at the level of the new vertical units of the University, however they might be organised. It is essential that, on the basis of the type of information outlined in the previous section, the University and the new vertical units can identify both their existing strengths and those that they wish to grow, and that they have a coherent research strategy. We propose that this should be a priority for the new vertical units and for the Research Committee of the Senior Executive Group.
Building critical mass
There are several ways in which we can create focus and build critical mass in areas that are prioritised. One is through structural reform that addresses the problems of the fragmentation of disciplines among the various faculties and creates appropriate governance arrangements for horizontal units of the type outlined later in this chapter. There is also the option of direct investment in developing key areas through the allocation of discretionary funding, targeted fundraising, the allocation of funds from the University strategic fund created under the new Economic Model, and the appointment of new research staff in targeted areas at all career levels, including research students. This targeted investment should take place at both a University-wide level, and at the level of the new vertical units. Finally, this targeted investment should coordinate with our planning for infrastructure investment and improvement.
A commitment to targeted funding and to developing research infrastructure is essential if we are to be successful in the international competition for high-calibre staff outlined in Chapter 2. As a nation with a small population that is geographically distant from major research infrastructures in the United States and Europe, we need to provide incentives that overcome geographical and social barriers to recruitment from these sources where it is necessary to build and support an area of research strength that supports our strategic priorities. One such incentive would be a commitment to build critical mass in the area of research that would support the potential recruit. The strategy pursued by the Faculty of Education and Social Work to set up the Centre for Research on Computer Supported Learning and Cognition through the creation of two professorial positions filled from the United Kingdom and Germany exemplifies this approach. Strategic recruitment of this kind is essential to develop identified key areas of work.
Supporting emergent areas of research
This commitment to focusing our work should not preclude emergent areas of research. Indeed it should give us the flexibility to support it, whether on a University-wide basis or at the level of the vertical unit. In order both to remain competitive and to deliver benefit to Australia and the wider world, we must focus not only on existing research strengths, but also on the conscious identification, and support of, such new areas of work. In many areas this will happen as a result of the evolutionary dynamic of the research of the University community without intervention. But in some areas significant investment in either people or infrastructure will be required. The University should be prepared at any given time to make strategic investment in a small number of these emergent areas.
One area of emergent research for which we are seeking to build capacity through an Education Infrastructure Fund (EIF) application is nanoscience. Inspection of our publication data shows that there has been a dramatic increase in total numbers of publications in this field by our researchers. We are yet to have the tools to quantitatively evaluate the quality and impact of this productivity by a set of agreed and objective measures. But assuming such measures support our current view, by building on our emerging capabilities in nanoscience we might well have potential to deliver research outcomes that could result in transformational benefits for society in areas as diverse as communications, medical diagnostics and astronomy. Nanotechnology, however, requires dedicated, purpose-designed infrastructure for the rapid design, fabrication, testing and evaluation of leading-edge concepts that is located so as to maximise the opportunities for cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas and methods. We propose that the Research Committee of the Senior Executive Group be asked to identify, during the planning period, perhaps one other area of emergent research that the University might choose to support.
Responding to and shaping the public policy agenda
Finally, the work of focusing our research investment should be conducted in dialogue with government at both state and federal levels. We should be looking to identify opportunities that resonate with its priorities. For example, we have recently leveraged the federal government’s strong interest in international collaborations to create the opportunity to have a University of Sydney node of the renowned European Molecular Biology Laboratory to bring chemical biology into the Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease. This initiative will bring an important new foundation science capability into the centre – the chemical biology needed to identify potential drugs for therapeutics or probes for diagnosis. Similarly, we are playing a leading role in Australia’s involvement in the Square Kilometre Array to continue to build critical mass in our astrophysics and astrophotonics.
One example of an area in which cooperation with public policy agendas will be crucial is that of health research. Our performance in the competition for NHMRC grant funding shows significant growth in recent years, in a climate in which NHMRC funding has seen significant increases (Appendix 18). To maintain growth now that NHMRC funding has flattened will require understanding how we can support the new NHMRC strategy that is calling for greater integration of the research being done within hospitals, and higher education and medical research institutes. While our medical research and research training programs are highly interconnected with our hospitals and medical research institutes, the lack of structures and mechanisms to bring this vital community together to speak with one voice when needed leads to other Australian states capturing major initiatives in areas where we have greater capability. Establishing a framework that enables greater integration and cooperation in strategic planning, as well as more cost-effective delivery of high- quality services, is essential to us being able effectively to leverage our clear research strengths in this area and place the University and the state of New South Wales in a leadership role for the sector. This is an ongoing area of work for us that should be the subject of focused attention in the planning period.
The work of identifying and focusing on particular areas of research will therefore be crucial during the planning period and must be undertaken with the aims of building critical mass, supporting emergent as well as established areas of research, and responding to, as well as setting, the public policy agendas. It is the responsibility of both the Senior Executive Group at the University level and also each of the new vertical units. Importantly, however, it does not mean that either the University or the new vertical units should inhibit existing research activities outside our identified areas of focus; but it does mean that resources should, where possible and compatible with the spirit of the new Economic Model in returning income to the units that earn it, be directed to grow those areas upon which we agree to focus.
Perhaps one of our most urgent priorities is to move toward organisational structures that align with and support our areas of research strength in the disciplines and cross-disciplinary research areas. This involves the simplification of our system of ‘vertical’ units such as faculties and schools in the manner described in Chapter 4. But it also involves the creation of appropriate arrangements for ‘horizontal’ units such as centres and institutes discussed in this chapter. In creating new models to organise and govern our research it will be important to recognise that different kinds of research strength will need differential treatment. Active cooperation from managers of academic units will also be required, supported by appropriate funding arrangements and guidelines for staff appointments that emphasise the development of research concentrations and the potential for leading and working in internationally competitive teams.
Creating research (and teaching) linkages that cut across vertical organisational structures requires a framework that fosters collaboration. Academics are often, by inclination, excellent collaborators. Driven by the logic of their research, academics rarely shy away from seeking out scholars and researchers in other fields whose work or expertise may illuminate their own. The first consideration is to ensure that universities do not put too many obstacles in the way of this informal collaboration. The more important consideration is how we might create other formal mechanisms to promote and support collaborations that move beyond the focus of an individual researcher to create teams of researchers working together on major research problems or developing research training and other teaching programs. This becomes particularly complicated when it involves collaboration, not only between faculties, but also with external partners such as associated medical research institutes and area health services. Providing for a range of organisational structures (including institutes, centres, clusters, networks and programs) that appropriately organise and present a hierarchy of research strengths while taking account of broader University strategic objectives will assist us in this.
The centres and institutes policy
At present our main means for promoting research collaboration is through our Centres Policy (see Appendix 19). This policy has been in place for a number of years, although refined and improved from time to time. In essence it establishes the principles for the formal approval of research centres and institutes and offers guidance on appropriate governance arrangements. In summary such research centres and institutes should involve more than one researcher; involve researchers from more than one school and preferably across different faculties; address major research questions; have the capacity to generate significant research outcomes (grants, publications, other forms of intellectual property, conferences, seminars and so on); may involve a research training component; should preferably have a board of management to oversee operations and to provide advice to the director of the centre or institute; and must have a viable business plan to demonstrate that the centre or institute is sustainable.
This formal framework has generated a significant number of centres and institutes. By 2007 there were over 320 approved centres and institutes. In that year a review of the policy and the centres and institutes established under the framework, led to the conclusion that the policy was not rigorous enough. In general, the review concluded that a number of centres were very small, essentially collaborations between two or three staff, offering little additional impact, while some long-established centres were effectively moribund. Other issues also became apparent. Some centres and institutes apparently function more to advance the profile of small groups of researchers and add little to the research outcomes that would have been achieved by these staff in the normal course of duties.
A further consideration highlighted in the review was that the establishment costs of smaller centres and institutes were not always justified by their research output. In most instances, establishing a centre or institute creates a claim for school, faculty or University administrative resources. Centres often require dedicated administrative support that adds further to the salary costs in faculties. Adequate administrative support is appropriate to ensure the smooth functioning of these research groups, but it can become a hidden cost if centres and institutes proliferate without due consideration to administrative implications. Indeed, it seemed that some faculties were approving large numbers of centres without thinking about the overall financial impact of these decisions. Equally important, where the impact of a centre was marginal, the advantages of having a centre might well be outweighed by the costs of maintaining it. Too many centres and institutes were being established without placing each within a larger strategic and financial context to justify their establishment. Once created, there is a high potential barrier to dissolving a centre or institute as they frequently recruit powerful advocates from the business or professional communities who are convinced, justifiably or not, that the unit they are championing is engaging in essential and cutting-edge work. Often it would be far preferable to establish informal research networks to drive collaboration than to formalise groupings of marginal additional impact on the research profile of the University and high cost. As a consequence of this preliminary analysis, the guidelines were revised to set the benchmark higher for formal approval and all existing centres and institutes were required to reapply under the new guidelines. As a result around 60 centres and institutes were closed.
We now have around 270 centres and institutes, and while the new policy framework seems to be a suitable vehicle governing the establishment of centres and institutes, we are seeing renewed growth in the requests to form a centre in circumstances that do not seem to justify a formal centre governance and structure. Often the establishment of the centre seems merely a device to secure a particular type of (often inadequate) funding for its activities. At present, a centre or institute needs the approval of the Provost to be established, and its operation is approved for a fixed period. At the expiration of the period it is by default disbanded unless it makes a satisfactory case for its renewal. We propose that any new proposals, either for the creation or renewal of a centre or institute, should be signed off, not only by the Provost, but also by the Senior Executive Group on recommendation from the Research Committee. In this way we can ensure that all the faculties of the University have had sight of the activities of the unit, that duplication can be avoided, and that cooperation in particular initiatives can be encouraged.
Large-scale centres or institutes
The majority of entities established under the existing policy framework tend to be small-to medium-sized units, ranging from five to fifty or so academic staff, with additional numbers of research-only staff and research students (although some medical institutes are larger). This is appropriate in many fields of research. But there is no doubt that the direction of modern cross-disciplinary research raises questions about how we facilitate the establishment of much larger teams that might have a substantial physical footprint, but would certainly have a research capacity that is beyond that which could be pulled together by a collaborative project. When we establish such an entity, it would seem desirable that its name would have some brand recognition that distinguishes it from most of the 270 centres and institutes that we currently have.
Contemporary debates about research orientation suggest that in the 21st century there will be increasing emphasis on very large-scale research projects, encompassing a much broader range of disciplines than ever before. Implicit in these debates is the view that research teams in the past, even cross-disciplinary teams, have been too narrow. The size and complexity of contemporary research agendas suggests that major impact and effectiveness might only really be achieved if we place basic and applied research in broader social, cultural and political contexts.
For example, there has been much discussion of late (particularly in the area of health) around the concept of translational research. A related phrase is research that goes ‘from bench to bedside’. In other words, important breakthroughs in medical treatment might be more feasible in the future when we bring together large cross-disciplinary teams that work on the basic science involved in disease organisms; applied medical science, for example pharmacy, that can translate those basic research insights into a particular medical procedure or drug therapy; clinicians who can monitor the impact and effects of new therapeutic regimens and assist in revising and refining these therapies; nurses and doctors who can then implement new procedures; and social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and others who can monitor the post-operative and outpatient elements of any new procedure. We might also add here that the research chain should extend well beyond the bedside to encompass public health and epidemiology; the history and anthropology of health and treatment strategies; the ethics and political philosophy of healthcare reform; social policy research; and legislative and administrative law reform. In other words the research pathway should lead from bench top, to bedside, to parliamentary chamber. Similar arguments can be made in other major research areas such as climate change, digital technologies, robotics, chemical engineering or urban design.
If this is the case, then a major research imperative will be to move beyond the teams of five to fifty and create research teams of one hundred, five hundred, perhaps even more. Obviously no university can support more than a few areas of such size and diversity but research-intensive universities will need to think seriously about the creation of such teams if they are to have research impact of genuine international significance in the future. This, of course, is not the only pathway to impact. There will always be a place for the lone researcher who has a brilliant idea or develops a breakthrough of major importance. But in the future universities will have to foster some large team-based research projects to be competitive.
Over the last three or four years the University has been thinking seriously about ‘large research agendas’ and how to pursue them. Sizable interdisciplinary research teams inevitably mean large horizontal structures that cut across numerous vertical structures such as faculties and schools. It was this insight that led to the creation of the Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease, which will be a major initiative for the University over the planning period. In the last 12 months, the University has been carefully considering the case for establishing other large-scale horizontal projects, say another one or two over the planning period. We propose that it should do so.
Several possible areas for such initiatives have already been suggested, although no decisions have been taken as to the establishment of large-scale horizontal research and teaching units as a University-wide priority, outside the Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease. The identification of any areas for University-wide investment would need to be undertaken with the Research Committee of the Senior Executive Group and on the basis of strong evidence as to existing and potential research strengths. However, to give evidence of the potential for this type of collaboration we might mention four areas in which we should be active to bring together the research work of the University, whether or not they are identified as a possible object of major University investment. These four examples are not exhaustive, but rather illustrative, of the several fields in which the University could bring together significant pools of expertise.
The first of these is in the field of ‘area studies’. Area studies are cross-disciplinary fields of research, scholarship and teaching organised around the study of particular geographical, national or cultural regions. Area studies initiatives typically concentrate on the society, politics, philosophy, economics, legal institutions, public health and culture of a specific region, but can include the sciences and other disciplines relevant to the area.
In 2009 a review was conducted into the feasibility of initiating an area studies strategy for the University. The review concluded that the University had significant interdisciplinary research and teaching expertise, across a broad range of schools and faculties, in major regions of the world. The extent of our expertise was largely hidden by the vertical structures of the University and even many researchers specialising in particular regions were often unaware of other scholars elsewhere in the University who shared their area of regional expertise. The report concluded that the University had significant groupings of researchers in such areas as South-East Asia, China, South Asia, the Pacific, Europe and the United States, with smaller groups with expertise in Africa and Latin America. It concluded that there were at least two regions, notably South-East Asia and China, where the University had a breadth and depth of expertise that was genuinely world class. In South-East Asia, with around 100 researchers active in the area, the University possesses what is arguably the greatest concentration of scholars in this field in the country, and would be the envy of leading institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. These researchers range across faculties as diverse as Arts, Economics and Business, Nursing and Midwifery, Medicine, Science, Engineering and Information Technologies, and Architecture, Design and Planning, which in part explains the current lack of contact between staff. Thus we have a real opportunity to build upon this work by establishing centres in two areas of significant current strength and strategic importance to Australia, South-East Asia and China. Indeed, SEG has already agreed that we should establish University-wide centres in China and South-East Asia, although the scope of these projects is still under discussion. This initiative could be a foundation for the establishment of other area centres over time as part of a strategy to enhance our international teaching and research reputation in this field of study.
Another possible area of investment and greater coordination is that of the humanities, social science and science of the mind and mind-related conditions. The University already has one medium-sized research institute working in this area, though it represents just a part of the related research going on in the University. The Brain and Mind Research Institute is a medium-sized multidisciplinary institute (about 100 researchers) involving researchers in Science, Health Sciences, and Nursing. The focus of its work is neuroscience and new treatment regimes for major mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The establishment of the Brain and Mind Research Institute correlates with a significant upswing in neuroscience publications: however only a portion of our research capacity in neuroscience and neuromedicine is within the Brain and Mind Research Institute. Further, there is significant potential for positive collaboration and cooperation between the Brain and Mind Research Institute and the Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease, especially in the area of imaging. It is significant that the University ranks third in citations for neuroimaging in the English-speaking world. Thus we have the potential to focus and grow critical mass in this area of health research that has a devastating societal impact – substance abuse, clinical depression and dementia now account for more than 40 percent of all illness, costing the Australian economy an estimated $30 billion each year. Moreover, we could expand the range of this activity into everything from the philosophy of mind to the social policy of mental health care.
A third and a fourth area for greater collaboration evince initiatives in which not only the research work of the University, but also its own practice as an institution, could be brought together. These are in the field of social inclusion outlined in Chapter 5 and in sustainability through our Institute of Sustainable Solutions. This latter institute is working to bring together researchers in such fields as science, agriculture, engineering, information technology, economics, sociology and veterinary science, to formulate technical, economic and social solutions to the problems of environmental sustainability. But, it could also provide expertise for the University’s own efforts to create an institutional life that is more sustainable. Indeed, it has done so already through our triple bottom line reporting project.
These four examples alone should demonstrate that there are a number of distinct areas in which one or two additional large-scale cross-disciplinary units could be established during the planning period.
The governance of cross-disciplinary centres and institutes
The history of interdisciplinary initiatives at the University, particularly centres and institutes, is salutary. While many of these joint faculty research initiatives have begun with much goodwill, it has generally been the reality that one faculty has taken primary responsibility for providing funding and administrative support for centres. Over time, the pressures of sustaining joint funding and providing administrative support, alongside inevitable tensions over allocation of research quantum and any student load that might arise out of a centre, has generally seen a gradual fall in enthusiasm and drift towards one faculty sustaining the lion’s share of the responsibility. In other words, given the strong vertical pull in any organisational structure, centres often have to fight against the tendency to lapse back into a single faculty focus.
This problem may not be a significant one where the centre is small and focused on a narrow research theme. But if the University is to invest very significant resources into a few large-scale, cross-faculty research initiatives, it is imperative that there are measures in place to sustain long-term interdisciplinary and multi-faculty commitment to these enterprises. Critical here is the creation of a governance structure that provides an equal voice for all partners and mechanisms for locking in long-term faculty commitments, allocating equitably the financial and other resource flows (such as student load), and a means of moving groups in and out of such initiatives as they develop over time.
The question of appropriate governance structures for large-scale research enterprises, which deal with a wide range of such issues, has been the focus of considerable work by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research). She is guiding the development of an innovative shareholder system sitting alongside more common mechanisms such as a board of management and board of advice to manage the complex issues embedded in creating a well-functioning research structure. This work is still in draft phase and it will be refined over the next 12 months to be the basis for the establishment of large cross-faculty research enterprises. A key feature is that each participant unit or third party will participate in the centre on the basis of a collaboration agreement that will be specific to that participant in the joint project, the agreement covering a number of defined issues such as financial contribution, participation in teaching, and access to resources. The draft model has been developed after an evaluation of multidisciplinary governance practice in Europe (the European Molecular Biology Laboratory), the United States (Stanford, Michigan) and elsewhere in Australia (Melbourne) and is set out in Appendix 20.
Importantly, the developing model could also be used for the creation or reform of smaller centres and institutes, where appropriate, and thus help to ease collaboration between the vertical units of the University in the creation of horizontal units, the sustainability of which would be clearer, and the benefits to each party from participation more explicitly outlined.
Cross-disciplinary centres and institutes and education
Of course if we have major cross-disciplinary centres or institutes with substantial footprints and research capacity, we will wish to consider how these units support and benefit from research training, postgraduate coursework programs and undergraduate teaching. The current economic reality in higher education is that the full cost of research is not funded, and it is therefore impossible to sustain a research-only entity of the scale being considered here. Further, these facilities provide unique opportunities to offer students cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research training and education, with the real prospects of growing our student numbers with modern, new facilities. How we ensure an equitable distribution of resources flowing from teaching (fees and/or load, Research Training Scheme funding and so on) is essential if cross-disciplinary teaching is both to be encouraged generally and to be a source of support for these new centres.
Importantly, no centre or institute, however large, should be an admitting body for students. The support that such horizontal units derive from teaching needs therefore to be funnelled from the faculties, and earned under much clearer rules for sharing teaching income than we have at present.
We already have many degree programs that involve students picking units of study from a variety of faculties. In this context there are protocols for the distribution of resources, essentially on the basis of where the student takes the unit of study. Funding generally follows the student. Thus if a student in Science takes a unit of study in Economics and Business, the latter faculty receives the load (or the fee if it is a postgraduate fee-paying course). This is a relatively transparent and equitable mechanism. There is a small inequity in that the faculty of enrolment, in our example Science, receives no compensation for the administrative costs involved in overseeing the student candidature when the student takes a unit of study in another faculty, but given that many students cross boundaries between faculties on a regular basis, this small inequity tends to be remedied in the give and take between faculties.
The difficult ‘horizontal’ issue arises when faculties formally collaborate in the teaching of particular units of study or even entire programs. When the key resource at stake is student load (in all undergraduate programs and some postgraduate coursework programs) we have fairly cumbersome but relatively well-established procedures for allocating load on the basis of the proportion of involvement by staff in different organisational units. For example if Engineering and Economics and Business were to offer a joint unit of study in, say, ‘project management’, and staff in Engineering offered half the teaching and staff in Economics and Business the other half, then the load could be distributed 50:50 to each faculty. This becomes more complex at the postgraduate coursework level when faculties have different fee structures. This can lead to a situation where staff from different faculties do exactly the same amount of teaching but one faculty gets significantly more funding because the fees in their faculty are higher. Again the mechanisms are cumbersome. Faculties can either agree on a compromise common fee structure or agree to accept the lower or higher fee figure for the particular program in question. The awkward nature of these protocols might be a disincentive to engage in teaching collaboration, although some does occur. As we come to implement the new University Economic Model we need to keep these matters in mind to ensure that we do not create even more disincentives to the kind of teaching collaboration that will be essential if we are to sustain and grow our cross-disciplinary work.
An area of difficulty, where the conventional mechanisms genuinely obstruct collaboration, is in relation to research training as the funding implications of Research Training Scheme load drive policy outcomes that are not always in the best interests of students. As noted in Chapter 5, current Academic Board policies prescribe a primary supervisor, with the possibility of associate supervisors from other areas. This is to ensure that students have a single point of affiliation with the University, so that there is consistent oversight of their candidature. This has the support of faculties, as most faculties are anxious to preserve the Research Training Scheme load (and the associated funding benefits) for themselves. Federal government funding policies for research students reinforces this tendency to hoard Research Training Scheme load. But some students would actually benefit from genuine co-supervision across faculties. One of the challenges for the future will be to work with the Academic Board to reconsider policies on research student candidatures to better facilitate co-supervision. That will also require fine-tuning of the University Economic Model to remove financial disincentives to co-supervision. Ironically perhaps, our proposed new vertical structure described in Chapter 4 which creates larger groupings of many faculties, might facilitate just this objective. If funding is delivered at a higher level than the faculty then internal distribution mechanisms can be worked out more easily to compensate faculties for collaboration in research training.
One thing that is clear, however, is that a focus on cross-disciplinary research training is essential as we develop our research training in the ways outlined in Chapter 5. At the moment the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) organises a postgraduate conference in which students present their work to one another, across disciplinary boundaries, as do several other groups in the University, but we propose that we explore formalising this type of cross-disciplinary encounter as a normal part of graduate research training. This would certainly support a Sydney culture conducive to partnering and collaborating across traditional discipline areas, and encourage research students to value the rewards that come from working in this environment. A strong set of cross-disciplinary graduate training offerings might well be a means to attract new student cohorts which, if coordinated with infrastructure and research plans, could be an important component to sound, forward-thinking academic and financial planning. Consider again our example of the Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease for which we will need a strong research cohort of bioinformaticians who understand basic biology; this is a research skillset that is in great demand internationally and in short supply in Australia which for which our interdisciplinary project could provide excellent training.
A final priority for the development of our research during the planning period concerns its dissemination, and in particular the further development of work that has been proceeding on the principled dissemination of our research through its commercialisation.
The primary vehicle for the dissemination of our research is unquestionably peer-reviewed literature. However, other forms of dissemination are also important, particularly where research is in a form that can be adopted by the community. In some circumstances such research can make a significant public impact by being actively contributed to the public domain through open access licensing regimes such as ‘open source’ and ‘creative commons’. In appropriate cases, licence models can be adopted which allow such innovations to be contributed freely to the academic community while licensed for value to industry. Open access licensing models are particularly relevant, for example, to the translation of innovations in information technology and some research tools. We propose that, where possible, the University should have a bias towards allowing open access where doing so would be in the public good.
However, there are other categories of discovery, for example in areas such as biotechnology, medicine, engineering and novel materials, which require significant further development before they can be translated into usable products and services that can be adopted by the community. The outcomes of this type of research will be translated into tangible social and economic benefits only if potentially valuable discoveries are protected and licensed to commercial partners who will invest in their development. To ensure that the outcomes of University research are translated in ways that create the maximum social impact, it is therefore important that we have the capacity to undertake many different kinds of research translation activities, including intellectual property protection and commercialisation. For this we need clear contractual arrangements and clear rules giving expression to the University’s policy on intellectual property protection. We are therefore in the process, with the Research Committee of the Senior Executive Group, of revising the University’s Intellectual Property Rule.
Underlying our approach to intellectual property ownership and the exploitation should be a commitment to serve the public good in ensuring dissemination and translation of new discoveries, with commercial income for the University and its researchers a secondary potential benefit. There are some technologies from which moderate income can be derived, and rare examples of discoveries that can lead to a significant income for the University and the researcher. Such income can be a source for strategic investment in research, and we should therefore be positioned to benefit from such discoveries and to provide incentives to reward researchers. The University should responsibly manage its intellectual property resources to these ends, but dissemination of our research remains our primary purpose.
Given that our primary purpose in commercialising our research is to maximise the effective dissemination of our research outcomes, our activities in this field must always remain consistent with our fundamental academic principles. Key drivers include protecting the University’s ability broadly to disseminate its research findings, freely to undertake further high-quality research in the same area, and to maximise the social impact of the University’s research outcomes. Important University values which underpin our commercialisation activities are reflected in the Association of University Technology Managers document In the Public Interest: Nine Points to Consider in Licensing University Technology, which the University endorsed in April 2009.
One key challenge in the translation of all university research is that university inventions are generally at an early stage in the technology development process. When new inventions are reported, it is common that further supporting data and evidence of proof of concept is required to support an international patent application, and to develop the invention to a stage where it is ready to be licensed to industry. In order to promote the translation of University research, sources of funding must therefore be available to support these activities. The University makes funds available to support development work relating to new inventions through the Sydnovate Fund, which has been successfully used to fund experiments to support international patent applications over University technologies. The University now needs to position itself to access new federal government funds which are available to support intellectual property development and commercialisation activities, including the funding of schemes offered through Commercialisation Australia.
Setting a strategic direction for our research of the kind that we propose in this chapter clearly requires significant changes to how we develop and support research at the University. That we have to make changes is inevitable given the changes occurring to our external and internal contexts discussed in chapters 2 and 3. By choosing to do so strategically we give ourselves the opportunity to make choices that might otherwise be made for us by the pressures of the external and internal contexts. The preceding sections argue for a significantly more active approach to identifying areas of research strength and those areas of research that have promise rather than prominence. This would require a fundamental restructuring of our approach to supporting and managing research activity across the University, and to how we integrate our efforts with research partners outside the University.
In implementing change it is crucial to ensure that the University gains the benefits sought and that the quality of the research done within the University is maintained and continues to grow; even better that we are able to take important research priorities to a new level of international recognition. An evidence-based approach to decision-making will be essential. We must be vigilant in our commitment to challenge the evidence on which we rely to make decisions and recognise when we are trapping ourselves by responding to legend rather than fact. It will be extremely important to remain alive to the unintended consequences of our decisions that could be detrimental to the University’s overall research efforts. But if we are able both to focus our research efforts in this way, and to retain a culture in which researchers are free to pursue their own intellectual passions, especially where they work in fields dominated by lone-scholar research, then we will have enormous potential to build upon the undoubted international research strength of the University. We will then have helped to sustain and develop an environment in which the brightest researchers can flourish for the benefit of Australia and the wider world.