Vice-Chancellor's Report

Imperative to innovate

Dr Michael Spence

In a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education I argued the need for research “quality” and “excellence” to be used as predominant measures of the value of publicly-funded research.

Following the global financial crisis, governments worldwide are striving to balance budgets and there is a risk they will prioritise short-term ‘impact’ over research excellence in funding decisions. I firmly believe short-term impact measurements can be overestimated and that longer-term impact from invest­ment in quality research can be grossly under­estimated. It has been my over­whelming experience at Oxford and at our University that where excellence and quality research are nurtured, impact follows.

However, even with our record of transformational research we need to continually evolve to provide the right conditions to support research excellence.

As articulated in our Strategic Plan, while our researchers are free to follow whatever line of enquiry they choose, a strategic investment focus could help us open new frontiers of knowledge and support new collaborations to optimise the impact of our research excellence. An integrated approach supported by improved governance arrangements, encouragement of cross-disciplinary activity, and career development measures will enhance our ability to invest in research projects of national, regional and international importance.

In line with this vision, in June the University released its Health and Medical Research Strategic Review. Chaired by Mr Peter Wills AC, it considered changes to the sector in Australia and globally, such as the shift towards large-scale partnerships and collaborations that address major community health challenges and health care costs. It balanced these against research strengths and examined how we could better support our research enterprise to build scale where needed to quickly seize opportunities and maintain pre-eminence.

"It has been my over­whelming experience at Oxford and at our University that where excellence and quality research are nurtured, impact follows."

The review’s recommendations include the establishment of four strategic priority areas for research collaborations (SPARCs) in health and medical research – obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease; cancer; mental health and neuroscience; and infectious diseases. These areas build on our collective research strengths, inspire our researchers and address national and international challenges.

The review also recommends supporting strong partnerships that increase opportunities for translation and commercialisation; placing renewed emphasis on support and training to attract researchers of the highest quality; and enhancing business processes and IT systems to facilitate cross-disciplinary and cross-organisational research.

The creation of the SPARCs, and investment in resources to better enable collaboration will make possible true cross-disciplinary research where different disciplines not only collaborate but also impact each other’s approaches and lead to breakthroughs, and in the development of new methodologies and creation of new knowledge.

To enact the report’s recommendations we are establishing an independently chaired executive steering committee to develop an implementation plan. The review’s recognition of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease underlines the importance of our major multidisciplinary centre that is inspiration for one of our transformational infrastructure projects – our Charles Perkins Centre Research and Education hub which will open in 2014.

The Charles Perkins Centre is a model for multidisciplinary collaboration and cross-disciplinary research to solve real-world problems and will host researchers from many faculties as well as incorporating innovative, cross-disciplinary spaces that provide greater opportunities for researchers, teaching staff and students to collaborate.

Led by world-renowned biologist researcher Professor Stephen Simpson, its resources and research potential are already attracting world-leading researchers such as nutritional ecologist Professor David Raubenheimer. Last month the federal government announced the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre to be led by Professor Andrew Wilson which will draw on expertise from eight universities. The centre will also house the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity.

Another of the four SPARCs – infectious diseases – emerged from collaboration facilitated by funding under the Sydney Research Networks Scheme. Collaboration went beyond Medicine and Veterinary Science to include the faculties of Arts and Social Sciences and Science. This research will be conducted under the banner of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, and will enhance Australia’s and the region’s capacity to address infectious disease outbreaks as well as influence future policy. We are thrilled former chancellor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO has provided this research.

However, this strategy is not limited to health and medical research. The changes provide a blueprint for support of cross-disciplinary work, including China studies, Southeast Asia studies and our new Sydney Environment Institute. They will bring our people together in new ways to pursue excellence and foster innovation that delivers even greater impact.