Research engagement on the agenda

Mixed REAction to new measure for industry connection

And then there was one

A couple of weeks back Gary Marchant, DVC (Academic) at Charles Sturt U resigned to take a year off and, “consider his next steps.” Yesterday DVC (Research) Sue Thomas announced her departure for the University of New England, where she will be a DVC plus provost. I wonder what the third CSU DVC, Ken Dillon, who runs administration makes of it all. VC Andy Vann is also reviewing how his own office works.

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NTEU intervenes in Lomborg dispute

Following management’s removal of critical comment over Bjorn Lomborg’s appointment at the University of Western Australia the state branch of the National Tertiary Education Union is moving to support staff. On Wednesday a long statement critical Dr Lomborg‘s new relationship with the university was posted to the School of Animal Biology’s Facebook page, described as an “official response” from the school. However it disappeared after three hours. The university then issued a statement on behalf of school head Professor Sarah Dunlop which stated the post was a private communication to management posted in error (CMM yesterday).  However yesterday the NTEU responded to staff concerns, “as to whether academics in particular and all staff have the right to comment on university decisions in light of the Lomborg Consensus Centre issue.” The university’s enterprise agreement protects the right of staff “to express opinions about the operation of the university and higher education policy more generally,” the union states, adding it would “be gravely concerned if any university attempted to shut down debate.”

New ERA with REA

The long awaited Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering report on impact metrics is out, including a great deal of information which will encourage Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane’s push for more industry-linked applied research.

According to the report, OECD data shows less than 5 per cent of product/process innovative businesses collaborate with universities or public research institutions in Australia, the lowest per centage in the developed world. In contrast the figure for world-leader Finland is 70 per cent. The difference is said to be due to an Australian academic emphasis on measuring research performance by scholarly publications.

“A focus on research excellence is often at the expense of other important activities such as university collaborations with the private and public sectors, entrepreneurial behaviour and knowledge transfer,” ATSE argues.

The complex paper examines data models to determine whether a Research Engagement for Australia measure is feasible and practical. “This work is intended to ensure that research engagement is appropriately recognised and rewarded alongside research excellence, in line with the government’s industry innovation and competitiveness agenda. The proposed metrics are intended to work in parallel with the Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia (the council’s research measurement exercise) and do not imply a loss of the value of basic curiosity-driven research,” ATSE states.

The key message is that this is possible without a major new classification exercise; “it is feasible to create meaningful research engagement metrics from existing data collections.”

Just as important, the Academy argues REA can capture research outputs that apparently are not obvious under ERA. “The analysis shows that REA can identify activities in the university that are not well suited to quality based evaluations. In each case, the metrics were consistently showing divergent results from ERA ratings. It is reasonable to conclude that where groups are particularly productive in their research engagement, are undertaking a significant share of the national research engagement effort for a particular discipline, or where the university has a focus on research engagement in a specific discipline, these efforts are better represented through the REA metrics presented here than they are through ERA ratings.”

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Armageddon 101

Thanks to the Dr Strangelove Studies scholar who alerted me to a report about student exchange opportunities at low profile Chinese universities, which work on military projects. “The old professor riding a dusty bike with fatherly smile and silvery hair along your way to class could be chairing the development of China’s most deadly space weapons,” the story advises. He will be the bloke with a briefcase chained to his wrist.

REAction

Education Minister Christopher Pyne made positive noises about the REA yesterday; “the metrics developed in the report have the potential to increase the return on public investment in science, technology, engineering and maths research as well as research in humanities and social sciences. ATSE’s work provides encouragement to researchers to engage with industry, ” Mr Pyne said.

Dr Tony Peacock, from the Cooperative Research Centre Association was also positive about REA, saying an impact measure is needed that complements the ARC’s ERA without adding to academic workloads, (as does the case-study approach used in the UK). “The ATSE approach, carried out through the ARC, looks the best way forward,” he said.

According to Australian Research Council chair Aidan Byrne the Academy had done well, coming up with “a relatively simple index that measures something.”

“I was part of the steering group and think ATSE has done a good job to date. I encourage them to go to the next stage,” he said.

However Professor Byrne added he was concerned by the possibility that REA could be taken too far, that it was a partial measure that did not, could not, fairly count achievements in disciplines that did not relate to industry. “It’s a partial measure,” he said, adding that “to be used as a resource indicator it has to be fair and it isn’t there yet.”

Professor Byrne said REA now needed to be trialled and tested against “actual behaviour,” a process that will take six months to a year. As to potential use he said he was not aware of any plan to link it to funding and that at this stage it is not sufficiently rigorous for that.

In contrast, the Innovative Research Universities group roundly rejected REA. “ATSE is wrong in its guiding assumption that a thorough qualitative assessment of the value of research for users outside the academic communities is not feasible,” executive director Conor King.

“Industry driven research has less standing in university culture than research that achieves great recognition amongst other researchers. … A parallel exercise to ERA to assess the real impact of a university’s research is a central element to changing the importance given to supporting industry driven research. Such an exercise must have a qualitative element. Like ERA, it must be benchmarked against an objective standard rather than being rankings-based. ATSE’s proposal does not do this, Mr King added.

The Australian Technology Network directorate was unavailable and Universities Australia declined to comment.

Huge Prize for tiny achievement

Amanda Barnard has won the 2014 Feynman Prize for her statistical analysis of nano particles. Melbourne based Dr Barnard’s other awards include a Prime Minister’s Science Prize and an Eureka. She has a doctorate in physics from RMIT and has lead CSIRO’s Virtual Nanoscience lab for six year.  Dr Barnard is the first woman to win a Feynman, awarded to a scientist making progress to Richard Feynman‘s goal of “the construction of atomically-precise products through the use of molecular machine systems.”

Bucks for broomsticks

Following Curtin’s new arrangement with the Fremantle Dockers (CMM, April 21) the University of Queensland has now signed with rugby league team the Brisbane Broncos. The new partnership includes student placements and research, including one project for a predictive “match difficulty index.” Sadly, the arrangement does not extend to naming rights, the “UoQ Broncos” on jerseys would be a sight to see.

Now just about every university in the country has an affiliation of some sort with a team in one of the four football codes, surely it is time for a national university league (fundraisers, think of the possibilities).

The problem is not even Universities Australia could broker a deal to get all of them playing the same game. But there is a solution, go with the sport of the future, one that already has a student competition. The Universities Quidditch League – quick somebody register the name.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au