Gonski calls for focus on research translation

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal boost to university research and CSIRO funding “is a good beginning” that must be followed by a new focus on working with industry to translate institutional research “into tangible things”, according to ANZ bank chairman and University of NSW chancellor David Gonski.

The big spending budget outlined by Josh Frydenberg this month was the right thing to do to get Australians through the crisis, with some additional dollars for institutional research, and incentives for business to perform more R&D.

“Is that a beginning, a middle or an end? I think it’s a good beginning,” Mr Gonski told the Australia Israel Innovation Summit. “It’s shows government’s participation and interest in research, which in my opinion is vital.”

“We need to [now] follow the way that Israel has done this, not only in researching but in translating that [research],” he said.

David Gonski
David Gonski: Calls for renewed efforts to improve research translation

Mr Gonski has urged government to follow-up its budget with a greater focus on “the second and more important” issuing of improving research translation outcomes in Australia.

“The budget has done the right thing to allow us to live through this crisis. But once we come out the other side, I think government should build on what they have already started – build on the research money – and have a look at the translation of research into practical [outcomes]”

Mr Gonski also urged government not to get too prescriptive about its focus on industries where Australia had a perceived natural or competitive advantage – such as in resources or agriculture. While it was natural to focus on things where the nation had an advantage, “but to stop there is in my opinion very limiting.”

He points to the success of Cochlear as a standout example among many. Australia does not have a higher percentage of hearing-impaired people that elsewhere in the world.

“But somebody worked it out anyway, and a beautiful and magnificent company developed from that which continues to provide fantastic technology.”

Meanwhile, CSL chief scientific officer and board member Andrew Cuthbertson said government must take into account global competition when designing policy settings “to offer an attractive commercialisation environment” that is competitive with peer nations.

“Knowledge intensive companies that collaborate, innovate and export as CSL tries to do will be very important in driving Australia’s future prosperity,” Mr Cuthbertson said.

“But competition between peer nations for really important things like skilled job creation, or capital investment in things like advanced manufacturing [is] very intense. I do think that Australia needs to refresh its public policy settings to offer an attractive commercialisation environment which is competitive with peer nations.”

Government support for large scale major projects in these knowledge-intensive industries is important, Mr Cuthbertson said, and while grants programs can be helpful – especially to smaller companies – grants won’t achieve the kind of large scale manufacturing in biotech that government seeks.

“If we look realistically at the difference between – when we make plans as a company – the difference between locating significant advanced manufacturing facilities here in Australia or a lower tax jurisdiction like Switzerland, the UK or now the US, the net present value over the lifetime of the major project … it can routinely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Mr Cuthbertson said.

“You’re never going to have a grant scheme that can account for that. We have to have settings for our own country, but we also have to understand how they relate to our competitors.”

Industry minister Karen Andrews said government had cushioned the impact of the economic hit that the virus had delivered as much as possible through its support programs for individuals. Now it had turned its attention to budget measures that would help to kick-start the economy.

“We have announced a very significant manufacturing strategy that the industry will lead, and of course the great enablers for industry are science and technology,” Minister Andrews said.

“We have put great emphasis on science/tech to work with industry, and that will lead our recovery,” she said.

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  1. Sub Manager 3 years ago

    Goodness, what to say. I’ve pretty much a 50:50 view of what I like and don’t like about anything David Gonski says, but this call to do more “work with industry” to “create impact” is an enduring dog-whistle embarrassment. 20+ years in tech and R&D and I say little has changed for the good (tell me I’m wrong) wrt translation of research outputs to industrial uptake. The industry co-investment model (CSIRO, increasingly universities) does not work generally in practice, and it’s pointless to keep asking why, or pushing that barrow uphill. Yes, it’s the model we have and politically too difficult to change overnight or career-wise too difficult or too ego-crushing for R&D leaders to call out, but we don’t need more of these “work with industry to generate real impact” clarion calls. The same goes for “moonshots” too. They’re the flavour of the year or two. Run run away…

  2. Alvin 3 years ago

    I find it more than faintly amusing that David Gonski is talking about translational research at a time when as the Chancellor of the University of New South Wales he is actually overseeing the decline of that translational research.

    At the University, the focus since 2016 has been on climbing the international rankings as part of a marketing push to attract more international students. To achieve these rankings it is important to attract researchers who publish in high-impact journals and also to buy a Nobel Prize winner (that by itself is worth a jump of around 10 places, according to the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Ian Jacobs, in a town hall meeting in 2016).

    However, there are many forms of research that do not publish in high-impact journals but which have directly translational outcomes to industry and the public sector. These international rankings do not take into account any policy change that results from research, industry use, or research that has a direct and focused impact on the real world unless it also includes publishing in high-impact Journal.

    The problem is that the high-impact journals, which are also run by the private sector and cost research bodies a fortune, tend to publish “fashionable” research. So, if you work in a molecular field (where you are unlikely to see a translational impact for years ) a field that does a lot of modelling or blue sky science you are much more likely to get published. The University of New South Wales post-COVID restructure is now focusing on these blue-sky science areas that have little translational impact and is actually removing a lot of researchers who have direct contact with industry and produce immediately translational activities simply because having these people continue their research negatively affects the Universities international rankings. Same for anyone who doesn’t need a massive grant to do their research.

    As little as two weeks ago, management in one faculty expressly stated multiple times that removing those researchers who did not publish in high-impact journals or get huge grants was the intent of the current post-Covid restructure even though that faculty had already met their cost savings. The idea was that they could take advantage of the pandemic to create new structures through targeted disestablishment of those people who were a drag on their rankings and exploit the excuse of the pandemic to climb even higher while every other university fell back. This is mercenary at best.

    So what is the cost? Well, it means that an important project that didn’t need big grants involved in improving the treatment of infections in Australian intensive care units (and which has already had some extraordinary findings that will change this treatment and save lives) is now likely to be suspended as the researcher involved has a choice of losing their job or being forced into a teaching-only role. Research that has already had an impact on positive policy responses to bullying in the hospital sector will end. Scaling the heights of absurdity, a person lionised by UNSW in the media who selflessly stepped forward and used 3D printing to manufacture short notice personal protective equipment for medical staff at the frontline of the pandemic is about to lose his job.

    When Gonski talks about the importance of translational research we have to ask if we should be taking him at his word when the focus of the University that he governs is currently on KPIs that are all about international rankings and a $128m marketing budget rather than a focus on beneficial research and researchers who are already having an immediate impact. No doubt, this comment will fall on deaf ears because rapidly climbing the international rankings is the only thing that matters to management CVs even while your student experience ratings drop to the worst in Australia, and a long-serving and world-leading professor (Prof Darren Saunders) retires saying publicly staff morale is the worst he has ever seen.

    If the Chancellor is serious about translational research perhaps the first thing he could do would be to run an urgent audit to look at those researchers who are about to lose their jobs in the next few days (as they are disestablished) to find out what useful translational research is being sacrificed for the sake of marketing to international students. It may also make him pause for an instant to consider what role universities should play in our society and for our country and whether the University of New South Wales is fulfilling that role. Of course, that might require some self-reflection, which has been sorely lacking in the upper echelons of UNSW for some time.

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