Interview on ABC North and West SA with Sarah Tomlinson
Topics: New assessment measures for university research

Sarah Tomlinson: Now, research that comes out of Australian universities – we know, we talk about it every day – we know it can change the world. They can cure diseases, launch satellites into space and help us understand our history, but sometimes researchers might have a harder time explaining why their research matters to a wider audience. The Federal Government’s new Engagement and Impact Assessment wants to make sure that the research we fund has benefits to both the economy and society. Simon Birmingham is the federal Education Minister and I asked him a short time ago what benefits does he think research should have beyond the walls of a university.

Simon Birmingham: Research has got to be about ultimately developing and enhancing our future, and that comes in a range of ways: the economic impact in terms of job creation, business growth; the social impact in terms of better healthcare, better education services and the like; and indeed, continued development of human knowledge overall. But I think Australian taxpayers rightly expect that their research dollars do really have a focus on how it’s going to make sure that we have a better standard of living in the future.

Sarah Tomlinson: What are some of the topics that you’ve seen that have made you question the validity of what we’re putting out there?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I don’t like to pick on particular subjects, but there are some esoteric grants that come up from time to time, ones that really sort of do look like they’re pursuing somebody’s pet hobby that won’t necessarily add certainly to the wellbeing or wealth of other Australians. My focus, as minister in charge of the Australian Research Council and some $3.5 billion worth of taxpayer investment in research, is to make sure that overwhelmingly it delivers outcomes and dividends that will help Australians to be better as farmers in the future in terms of their productivity and capacity to manage their land successfully, or in terms of rural healthcare issues and making sure that we actually have the right skills and knowledge to more effectively and efficiently deliver good quality healthcare outcomes in the bush, and a range of different issues that can make a positive impact and that we want to make sure research dollars are geared towards.

Sarah Tomlinson: Is there a worry that by only looking at the bottom line we might miss out on understanding a lot about ourselves – dare I say it, even politicians’ behaviour?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, and look that’s why you certainly wouldn’t want to turn the tap off just in terms of basic knowledge and development at universities, and that’s a critical part of what universities do. Academics and researchers are given extensive time already, as part of their day-to-day jobs, to pursue different projects, to undertake research, to pursue knowledge in a whole range of ways. But then when we’re providing additional grants funding into universities – that is, specific taxpayer dollars over and above the core funding that employs academics and researchers – well, from that we want to make sure that it is heavily geared towards things that can lead to positive outcomes. Not all of them will, but we do want universities to think, well, are we successfully engaging with end users of research, whether that’s a business, whether that’s a service delivery body like a school or education department or a health provider or the like? Whatever it may be, are they actually engaging there, and ultimately, where they do have breakthroughs that result in positive products, are they realising income that can help support and underpin further research in the future?

Sarah Tomlinson: How would the Engagement and Impact Assessment work?

Simon Birmingham: So this is a new tool that the Turnbull Government’s developed as part of the Innovation and Science Agenda, and it’s being piloted this year with the help of universities around Australia. We’ve tested a range of different measures from that. What we’re going to proceed with next year, in doing it properly and thoroughly for the first time, are several measures. One is the extent of cash support from users and collaborators in research, such as businesses or other service providers; how much income is a university making in terms of commercialised research; what is it that universities are doing to understand the impacts of their research, as well as then clear explanations from users of research about how it’s had an impact on their ability to enhance their product, services or the like.

Sarah Tomlinson: Who will judge them?

Simon Birmingham: So the Australian Research Council will coordinate this. It has oversight and leadership from the university sector. It is a collaborative undertaking between government and universities to make sure that it is robust, has the confidence of universities, but hopefully also really drives their behaviour in the future in terms of the way they direct their research dollars, being much more transparent and people being able to see which universities are doing the best job at collaborating with end users of research, or potential users of research. Because as a country, we sit close to the top of global rankings in terms of research publications, but way down the list – almost at the bottom of the OECD – in terms of actual commercialisation of our research, the innovation that stems from a finding. So for our own wellbeing, for our future wealth as a country, we need to make sure that we bridge that gap and lift those commercial outcomes.

Sarah Tomlinson: Should we not be putting our trust in our universities and research organisations to make these decisions for themselves?

Simon Birmingham: Universities are quite responsive to reputation, to rankings, and what drives those rankings sometimes are things like publications, and publications are a very important part of academia and the work that academics do, but we don’t want to have publications just for publication’s sake. We want to make sure that whilst maintaining our standing in universities for having strong research output via publication, we also see those publications translated into breakthroughs that are useful to Australia, that lift the wealth and wellbeing of Australians. That’s really what hopefully this new measure will do, it will drive that behaviour in universities to think, well, we still want to be top of the rankings in publications, but we also want to make sure that the relevancy of those is very strong as well.

Sarah Tomlinson: Senator Birmingham, I want to read you this quote from Vicki Thomson, who is part of the Group of Eight, and she said that you simply can’t judge the long-term value of a research project on the title and the short blurb. She says imagine if Alexander Fleming had put in a grant application to fund an examination of mould growing in a dish on a windowsill, and the tabloid derision that would’ve ensued, but without it we wouldn’t have had penicillin. Is there a worry that we can be very short-sighted here?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think this is still ensuring that universities, who best understand the research they’re doing, are in charge of their destiny in terms of the shaping of their behaviour. Now, I don’t think that any of the types of tabloid comments or otherwise that we saw in some of the newspapers this week went to the types of scientific breakthroughs that led to penicillin. Even if you’re talking about studying the content of mould, well, that is a very specific science activity and research activity that very few people question. Universities, inside their institutions, of course need to make sure that such researchers are still focussed, though, on- if your ambition is to study mould, for example, with an idea that it might lead to some health benefits, who are your health partners in this; who else are you engaging with through that process of the research? That’s really what this new impact and assessment measure will do, it will encourage them to think outside of the university and make sure they’re getting partners from business, from healthcare, from agriculture, from education, from all the various range of service providers that ultimately are end users of research findings.

Sarah Tomlinson: Will there be a chance for researchers to respond and explain their project further if they’re not backed?

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is not in and of itself- the Engagement and Impacts Assessment tool won’t be something that knocks back research projects by the Government. Universities themselves will be making those decisions, and universities certainly have plenty of internal processes for researchers and their staff to appeal and question different decisions.

Sarah Tomlinson: Senator Simon Birmingham is with us today talking about the Engagement and Impact Assessment, which will take a look at the academic publications that we’re making – our research project, our thesis – and decide whether it’s going to have a long-term impact on both the economy and society. How much will this Engagement and Impact Assessment save the Government in fees that you believe aren’t going to the right place?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not going to save the Government anything; it’s going to make sure, though, that taxpayer dollars are going to the highest possible end outcomes of uses. So we’re investing $3.5 billion in research over the next few years; the amount of Turnbull Government investment, Australian Government investment in research will grow by some $300 million. So we’re seeing greater input investment in research, because we know that it’s critical to make sure that our businesses, our industries, our services are world-leading. We are very fortunate as a country to continue to enjoy amongst the highest standards of living in the world, to be one of the most successful economies in the world, and our investment in research is important to make sure that we maintain that, but it’s got to be wise and smart and targeted and focused investment in research.

Sarah Tomlinson: What benefits did you see from the pilot run earlier this year? Did it save money?

Simon Birmingham: The pilots really were about helping to shape how this impact engagement tool will be structured in the future. So, as I said, none of this is about saving money, it’s about better spending money, better investment, smarter investment, and what we hope is that over time our universities, knowing that they’ll be measured and they’ll be held to account for the extent to which their research has true impact, really engages with end users, that it will shape their thinking in the projects that they endorse internally.

Sarah Tomlinson: Is there a worry for arts students here?

Simon Birmingham: No, look, I think there’s still a very rich place for all aspects of the humanities in the future and universities will continue to value, I’m sure, those areas of academic study and research, too.

Sarah Tomlinson: Just out of interest, what was your undergrad and postgrads?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I started out in economics, which I think is widely derided by many; the dismal science, I think some have called it. Others have cracked many of a joke about putting 10 economists in a room to come up with 13 different opinions. That went on, though, to doing a Masters in business.

Sarah Tomlinson: Fair enough. Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us today.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Sarah.