Trade and industry, Education | Australia

1 July 2016

Universities will have to do the heavy lifting and incentivise innovation in order to achieve the aims of Australia’s innovation agenda, writes Brody Hannan.

At the end of 2015, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy launched the Australian Government’s National Innovation & Science Agenda. The Agenda called for greater collaboration between Australian scientists in academia and industry, and encouraged university-based scientists to be more open to moving in and out of roles in industry.

But barely six months in, university researchers are already facing an uphill battle to achieve the aims of this ambitious new policy, thanks to an entrenched academic research culture where academics are so focused on producing publications that they aren’t willing to take risks and make ‘innovation’ happen with industry.

Despite the agenda’s focus on tackling the issue of university researchers’ poor inter-sectoral mobility, few studies on the mobility of scientists between industry and academia have been conducted in Australia. In response to those few recommendations that have been made, policymakers have sought to solve the issue by introducing bilateral secondments, as well as continuous grant applications for projects linking research and industry. However, these measures have ignored the overarching, systemic culture of universities that inhibits collaboration.

Part of what inhibits collaboration is academics’ low job security. Australia has followed an international trend towards an increasing number of PhDs, which has left the academic job market flooded with applicants and intense competition for available positions. This “competitive knowledge economy” leaves academics anxious about their jobs, which may not be held open pending the researcher’s return if they were to spend a few years in industry. It all adds up to academics being too scared to let go of their precious jobs in academia.

This isn’t good news for the Chief Scientist’s idea of secondments between academia and industry, which hinge on researchers leaving their job in academia to gain more work experience in industry.

More on this: Australian higher education: where to now? | Greg McCarthy

A key issue is that universities and industry have very different ways of measuring success. There have been many studies detailing how universities measure the success of their departments and researchers, with publications and ratio to citations being the main measures.

Case studies from Denmark and Belgium suggest that immobile researchers – those who remain in academia – produce significantly more publications than their collaborative peers.

To make matters worse, researchers from prestigious universities are more likely to suffer under a publication-driven culture. This isn’t good news for Australia’s research-focused Group of Eight universities, who the Government is hoping will lead the ‘ideas boom’.

Rather than rewarding their best academics and getting them to teach others how to be good researchers, many academics feel that universities are encouraging them to become ‘publication machines’. It is these academics and not those that collaborate or share their knowledge with industry who are rewarded with promotions and improved job security.

Belgian case studies support reports from the Office of the Chief Scientist showing there’s an apparent ‘skill gap’ or ‘mismatch’ between the skills industry employers want, and those early career researchers think they have to offer.

Employers see science researchers as having a ‘poor attitude’ and lacking in business and commercial skills, like project management. Additionally, many doctoral candidates don’t seriously consider a career in industry a possibility, with Spanish and US studies finding that a career in industry was merely a second choice for most PhD candidates, despite being less optimistic about a career in academia.

Additionally, the longer they spend in academia, the more entrenched in these behaviours and values researchers become, thus reducing the likelihood of a potential employer from industry hiring them.

Simply put, PhDs train candidates for academia – and only academia – thereby jeopardising any chance they have at a career in industry.

Ultimately, solving the issue of academic inter-sectoral mobility will require a multi-faceted approach, and the universities themselves will have to do much of the heavy-lifting to break their adverse academic culture.

It’s a research culture that has created a vicious cycle which sees researchers trapped in academia on a publication-production conveyor belt, and makes them unwilling to take the risks needed to create the innovation that the National Innovation and Science Agenda calls for.

It’s going to take a lot more than a smooth Prime Minister and a shiny innovation policy to undo the culture constraining our university researchers – a culture which is clearly inhibiting collaboration with industry – but can Australia and its universities innovate an answer?

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One Response

  1. Tristian says:

    Hopefully universities find better ways to give weight to innovation within industry alongside publications. It would be interesting to examine how these issues affect other disciplines like law.

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Hannan, Brody. 2016. "Publish Or Perish - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.