Strategy Six (August 2012 update)

Develop our capacity to identify and support research excellence

Fundamental changes in the research environment, both in Australia and internationally, require new approaches to achieving and sustaining research excellence. While researchers must be free to follow whatever line of enquiry they choose, a more strategic focus is needed for University investment in both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary work. This will help us to attract, enable and empower researchers in well-resourced and well-maintained environments.

Our aim is to develop and implement an integrated and coherent University-wide approach to planning, delivering, managing and funding our research in a way that demonstrably supports researchers engaged in internationally recognised, transformational research.

We have created new governance structures and funding mechanisms that will enable us to sustain our research excellence, not only by building on our traditional disciplinary breadth and strengths1, but also through developing new multidisciplinary approaches to address important societal problems.

6(a) Develop divisional research strategies and negotiate compacts with SEG for endorsement, and, where necessary, support of these strategies.

Research compact agreements finalised with faculties in March/April 2012 provide a customised package of additional and targeted funding and services2 to help each faculty to develop and strengthen its research strategy, while also fostering research excellence across the University. The agreements focus on how to improve the quality and impact of research in a particular field through targeted investment and support for building research capability. Each compact sets out key agreements for services and programs and details measurable outcomes sought in return for the central University investments. Over the coming year the success of the agreed research strategies will be reviewed in order to widen the compact process from faculty to divisional level. As a result there should be clear consistency between faculty and divisional research strategies that support a distinctive University of Sydney ‘research brand’.

6(b) Develop the capacity for comprehensive recording of University research outputs and for the evidence-based identification of areas of research strength.

We have expanded our research data management capability in a number of areas. This is a critical element in our understanding, review and planning of research strategies at the faculty and divisional level, and for the University as a whole. As such, it is key to the success of the compacts process. Examples of current projects include the development of a publicly accessible, searchable database of research capability for potential collaborators, government, industry and the public (on track to complete by the end of 2012), and work to improve storage and management infrastructure for research data in line with researcher needs. Data from these improved systems will also be integrated into the new academic performance development process (see strategy 12).

Significant work went into ensuring that the University’s ERA 2012 submission would be as strong as possible. We developed two optimisation processes: one for research outputs where citations are a significant criterion and one for those that are assessed by peer review. We also optimised the selection of research affiliates to include in our submission as permissible within the ERA guidelines. The ERA 2012 submission was completed on schedule in April 2012 and included approximately 34,000 research outputs from 4207 researchers accumulated from 2005 to 2010.

6(c) Establish a University-wide research fund to allow strategic investment in identified areas of research.

In support of the compacts, a new central ‘strategic levy’ provides for investment in identified areas of research. A significant proportion of the new investment3 has been targeted to areas of research where improvements could be made in relation to ERA and other external assessments of research performance. The funding also supports cross-faculty collaboration and assists research ‘clusters’ to develop strategic plans, write research grant proposals, and obtain linkage grants for industry and other external partnerships. In addition it provides opportunities for researchers to ‘upskill’ (see strategy 9) to establish sustainable research collaboration, and develop applications for internal or external competitive grant funding.

It is intended that this strategic investment in building and maintaining research excellence will in future be met from funding allocated through the new ‘excellence index’ of the federal government’s Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) program, which is driven by ERA results. The compacts process therefore sought to agree measurable indicators for faculty research performance to provide the basis for allocation of SRE funding (see also initiative 6(d)).

6(d) Apply divisional and University research strategies in the ongoing assessment of our infrastructure needs and priorities.

As well as providing funding and support directly to faculties as agreed in the compacts, we have invested in a number of new and emerging initiatives with a particular focus on research infrastructure and resources to support collaboration. Part of this investment is going towards the development of an agreed institutional research infrastructure strategy, including how to develop and support shared research facilities that are critical for building and maintaining world-class research excellence. It is intended that the agreed governance and operational models for the Charles Perkins Centre (see strategy 8) will become the model for other whole-of-University cross-disciplinary centres.

6(e) Establish a program for the systematic review and development of University research policies in collaboration between SEG and the Academic Board.

Less formally developed is the work to review systematically the University’s research policies. Nevertheless, the SEG Research Committee, which includes an Academic Board representative, regularly reviews research-related policy. To date, one new policy (the Research Agreements Policy) has been formally approved. The core intention of this policy4 will be central to the development of subsequent research policies. Policies currently under review relate to responsible research practice, allegations of research misconduct, research data management and intellectual property.

6(f) Complete the construction of the Australian Institute for Nanoscience.

The Australian Institute for Nanoscience (AIN), supported by funding from the federal government’s Education Investment Fund, will house 11,500m2 of combined research, laboratories, teaching spaces and academic offices. We have agreed with the government to alter the project’s scope from the original grant submission after it became apparent during the design development phase that some of the features identified in the original funding agreement could not be delivered within the proposed budget. Changes include reductions to the size of ‘clean rooms’, the amount of teaching space and the number of offices for postgraduate students.

The procurement process for the project contractor is now underway and has been adjusted to include early contractor involvement (ECI). The ECI process allows for the establishment of a guaranteed maximum price that takes into account available funding. Contractors will be required to provide options on additional scope that can be incorporated into the project should the University decide to allocate additional funds.

The project is now forecast for completion in late 2014 compared to the original forecast of early 2014; the government has been advised of the revised timetable.

1. In early 2011 the outcomes of the federal government’s first Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise rated more than 90 percent of the University’s fields of research at world standard or above.
2. For example, training for early-career researchers, guidance in grant proposal writing, support to develop applications for future competitive funding rounds.
3. $2.3 million in 2012 and 2013; future funding is dependent on budget allocations and the outcomes of the review of the 2012 compacts.
4. To protect the University’s role as an independent teaching and research institution that operates with integrity for the dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of public debate, and to promote research and free and critical enquiry.