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Ensuring research engagement, and not just research for private profit

The report on the Pilot project of Research Engagement for Australia will be released soon, and I admit to being very happy that we (myself, ATSE and others) have managed to move the discussion of how we value and support university research away from the twin focus on ‘quality’ (as measured by ERA) and so-called research ‘impact’ (as per the UK REF) to now include research engagement. As outlined by the ARC Research Impact Principles and Framework:

Engagement describes the interaction between researchers and research organisations and their larger communities/industries for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, understanding and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

As we move further down this path, and as such ideas get adopted into new policies includingn the National Innovation and Science Agenda, we have to take care to ensure that we do not simply make ‘research engagement’ a synonym for ‘research industrialisation’, where research is motivated only by private profit, where research ethics are compromised etc. This runs the risk of breaking the civic pact of universities.

I am referring to things such as this  recent case of Tamiflu.

In Australia, a first step would be for universities to make detailed research funding records publicly available through the HERDC. At present universities provide grant-level detail for grants provided by the Federal Government and its funding agencies and programs (so-called Category 1 income), but the same is not required for other public sector and private sector funding (Category 2 and 3 income). These data are already sitting in universities’ financial and administrative systems, and are already submitted in an aggregated format. Providing the more detailed version is likely a small additional burden, if at all, on the university sector. But the transparency that it would engender would be a huge step forward and provide a cost-effective safeguard against the kinds of issues posed by greater ties between our public research institutions and the private and government sectors that they can service.

My new job – Chief Data Scientist, The Conversation Media Group

Today I am happy to announce I begin a new role as Chief Data Scientist for The Converstion Media Group. The role involves working across a range of  professional services for the university and public research sectors, including consulting and analysis services (amongst other things). As such, the consulting  provided in the past through Research Strategies Australia will be accumulated into the new job and continue to be available.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everybody who has supported the work of ResearchStrategies Australia in the last fourteen months, and to recap some of the major achievements:

  • Research Engagement for Australia (REA) – I am very happy to have led this project for ATSE, and even happier that it made it into the Watt review and now into the National Innovation and Science Agenda. Mostly, I am happy that Australia has shifted a large part of its focus away from measuring research impact, and towards measuring research engagement. The results of the REA pilot study conducted with all QLD and SA universities will be appearing soon and should move the discussion forward again.
  • Science and Research Priorities and Practical Challenges – Working closely with my friend and colleague Adam Finch at CSIRO, we developed a method for quantifying Australia’s past research effort against each of the Government’s new research priorities and practical challenges. For my part, I applied this to ARC and NHMRC funding data to show how much has been spent against each priority area. Big(ish) data and text mining…the results are in the charts if you follow the link above.
  • Measuring the Value of International Research Collaboration – This one has yet to be published but you can read a little more about it here where it is referenced. I expect that it will be the beginning of a larger discussion of how we measure and value our international research partnerships. I also suspect that it will further connect our world class research with a range of end users of research, especially governments who can derive so much value from embedding research policy in other policy settings such as international development aid, diplomacy, economic and trade policy…the list goes on.
  • Single Higher Education Research Data Collection Working Group – It was a great pleasure to Chair the working group trying to bring together a single set of rules for the HERDC and ERA data collections. 

There are plenty more projects I could go through, but at the end of the day, I wanted to simply say thanks to all of those I have had the pleasure of working with, the members who agreed to lend their expertise and time to the working groups and steering committees, colleagues here and abroad across the research sector and government who have made themselves available to provide guidance and friendship, the individuals, academies, Dean’s groups, departments and universities that have employed me, the conference organisers who have invited me to speak…and everybody else who helped Research Strategies Australia do what it has done. Also, a special thanks to Melinda Laundon and Andreea Papuc Krischer for making themselves available to help out on many of the projects!

As I said, the work will continue in the new job, and myself and a new team will be available for consulting and advice as always. The role is an exciting opportunity to move this to a global stage, and with a great group of people around me. I look forward to continuing to work with you all.

(I will also continue to post to the blog.)

Links for January

Here are a bunch of links to recent reading:

Why do authors pursue low risk publication options?

The politics of commercial open access providers
Online social data for prediction

Measuring the correlation between expertise and influence online
The Chief Economist on R&D in small enterprises 

The social relations between science and society

The problem of social good in higher education
Science isn’t broken
The limit of market reforms in higher education

Re-imagining a more democratic public university system – part 2

For a while I have been thinking that many of the issues facing the Australian higher education research sector – funding shortfalls, obsession with journal articles and associated article- and author-level metrics, disconnect with the public sphere and low collaboration with the private sector, among others – are compounded by the ‘dual funding’ model.

Government support for research comes in two forms – about half from peer reviewed grants (such as from ARC and NHMRC) and half from research block grants. However, as I have outlined elsewhere, the research block grants are driven 55% by the outcomes of the peer reviewed grants, ostensibly with the logic of offsetting the indirect costs associated with those grants. Meanwhile, income from public and private sector partners barely rates a mention in the allocation formula. This is not the case in many research intensive economies as outlined in Figure 1 .


Figure 1 Government funding of R&D in higher education by funding type, 2010 (from OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scorecard 2013)

increasing impact in science figure 2


But why does this matter? Well, firstly, it focuses the entire university research endeavour on 3-4 year project cycles, which is not conducive to breakthrough research which often requires long time frames and serendipity. It also minimises universities’ ability to back winners and undertake long term strategic planning of their research agendas, instead preparing for round after round of grant applications.

But, more importantly it forces academics to focus on grant-getting. And grant-getting is predicated on journal article writing to boost ‘track records’. And journal article writing is based on peer review which is based on ‘hermetically-sealed idiom’ with a good dose of gate-keeping. In other words, the funding model rewards academics for turning inward.

It may be argued using market logic that these competitive mechanisms will determine the correct outcomes, but as competitive market-based mechanisms, both individual grants and the block grants are less than competitive: both are predicated on the status quo, block grants through the many inbuilt safety nets, and ARC/NHMRC grants because they are geared towards previous winners who have used ARC/NHMRC grants to increase their track records to make themselves more competitive for further grants ad infinitum.

While grant-getting is the only game in town (both as an end in itself and as the driver of block grant funding) this cycle will perpetuate. I believe that a rebalance of funding that provides greater recognition for income derived from the public and private sectors, and at the same time delivers a larger proportion of funding through (reworked) block grants would go a long way to democratising university research.

Given the potential pool of funding available from the private and public sectors is virtually uncapped there may be additional benefits to this approach, such as addressing the funding crisis for university teaching – research done for and with private and public sector partners tends to get closer to fully funded (i.e. includes on-costs) a greater focus on this may diminish the need to cross-subsidise research from teaching budgets.

It will be interesting to see if any of this comes out in the Watt review

This post is part 2 of an ongoing series on re-imagining a more democratic public university system. Part 1 can be viewed here.

It’s Not What You Publish, It’s Where You Publish – ERA, HERDC, REF and their Impact on Scholarly Publishing Behaviour

Thanks to Colin Steele and the Academy of Humanities for organising yesterday’s events at the National Scholarly Communication Forum. The program for the day is available here and my slides are attached at the bottom of this post.

The main thrust of my talk was:

  1. We have seen how Australian policy mechanisms based around publishing (the research quantum/HERDC and later ERA) have accompanied changes in academics’ publishing behaviours; in the case of the former Linda Butler has shown this clearly, and there is ample evidence for the latter.
  2. We are seemingly at the start of a shift in the social role of Australian higher education research – expenditure data show that in 2010 ‘applied research’ overtook ‘basic’ and ‘strategic basic’ research as the main activity going on in Australia’s universities.
  3. By contrast the policy drivers in higher education are focused on a ‘basic research’ paradigm of publication and grant-getting.
  4. There are many possible places to look for policy solutions to this – for example:
    1. providing greater proportions of funding through institutional block grants to support longer term, strategic planning in universities, and less through short-term project-based funding;
    2. increasing the numbers of researchers employed in industry to increase the firm-level absorptive capacity, to drive greater private sector demand for research, and to create new funding streams for researchers;
    3. provide more direct government funding of business R&D to stimulate the demand side and open up new funding streams for researchers.
  5. All of the above can be done by refocusing existing policy mechanisms and budgets, without having to ever think about changing the publishing behaviours of academics.

One surprising thing about yesterday’s forum was the consistent casual reference made to ‘the system’ – ‘the [peer review] system’, ‘the [research evaluation] system’, ‘the [scholarly reward] system’, ‘the [publishing] system’ etc. as though ‘the [disembodied] system’ is something other than the sum total of actions and social relations. For example, when we say that ‘the peer review system is broken’, what we are actually saying is that the way we review each others’ work is not working. My point is that to constructively change ‘the [higher education] system’ means understanding that it is not disembodied, that it is created in actions (at least in part those of academics!), and that in that lie mechanisms to bring about changes.


Policy drivers and publishing in Australian Higher Education Research- Tim Cahill, Scholarly communication forum (.ppt)

Re-imagining a more democratic public university system – part 1

The recent address by Raewyn Connell to the People’s Tribunal covered well-known reforms and transformations that have taken place in the Australian higher education system (and for that matter in large parts of the the world) – casualisation of academic roles, outsourcing of professional roles, increasing reliance on student fees especially international students, declining public funding, introduction of competitive mechanisms (for example, Australia has one of the highest ratios of project-based competitive funding compared with direct institutional funding) and ever-increasing administrative practices as part of the academic workload.

Connell says

What we still need is a way of changing the institutions in a democratic direction – a long-term vision for public universities, and a practical agenda for the near future.

I think the discussion has to deal with three sets of problems.  First, what will a more democratic university look like as an organization? – as a good place to work for all types of workers, as a place of shared rather than top-down decision-making.  What are the teaching and learning practices we need for a more satisfying and relevant higher education?

Second, considering the university as a knowledge institution, what kinds of knowledge will be created and taught?  What are the research agendas that universities need to pursue, as Australia moves from a colonial past into a turbulent and dangerous future?  What will curricula of the future be, if our universities are to be more than retail offices for globalized MOOC vendors?

Third, what are better ways of linking Australian universities to the wider society?  Who will be the new participants in university life, a generation down the track?  Can we have social justice in higher education, and if so, how?  How can universities develop a cultural identity more authentic and credible than the current boasting and brand-mongering?

I hope that I can offer some further reflections on these issues in the coming weeks.

As a starting point, I would direct attention to the following from the LSE blog by John Turpenny discussing similar issues facing the UK higher education system

Generally, policies are not just created at high levels and imposed on those further down who have to implement them to the letter. Policy cannot feasibly be made as a set of instructions with every eventuality specified. There is a necessary reliance on large amount of discretion among those at ‘street-level’ as to how policies are carried out. Police officers on the beat, for example, have a huge influence on how policing policy is implemented, by deciding who to arrest, who to question, and what offences to pursue as priorities. This discretion also shapes and changes the policy itself. The actions of ‘street-level’ public servants actually help create policy in their specific areas, whether those people recognise it or not. So there is a choice. Academics grudgingly ticking boxes will have some influence on policy, but probably not the desired one. We can do better than that. By acknowledging that higher education policy is something we help create, rather than something that is wholly done to us, we can start to make a difference.

Any consideration of these important issues has to be depart from the perspective that academics  cooperate in the use and misuse of higher education policies – we cannot sustain a narrow and naive view of how power operates in which academics are automatons. The responsiveness of academics to higher education policy in Australia has been convincingly demonstrated. But why? What are the drivers? Well, one of the more compelling explanations is that ‘peer esteem’ is a key motivator.

And this makes sense – the fact is that market mechanisms, competition and elitism are at the heart of academic work. For example, the closed-world of peer review, invented by elite learned societies in the 19th century, is based on two fundamental ideas – the logic of the system ensures that the best work is published, and because academic work is so specialised only other specialists can judge its merits.

This has been maintained in spite of countless evidence that the system does not work like this – plenty of fraud goes undetected while plenty of good science gets rejected, and in the words of Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner

And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.

By the middle of last century JD Bernal had already identified that the specialisation of scientific work was one of the defining characteristics of modern science setting it apart from science of the past

while science grows and influences our daily lives more and more, it is not becoming more readily understandable. The actual practitioners of the several sciences have, in the course of time, moved almost imperceptibly into realms where they find it necessary to create special languages to express the new things and relations that they discovered, and have in the main not bothered to translate even the more interesting part of their work into ordinary language. Science has already acquired so many of the characteristics of an exclusive profession, including that of a long training and apprenticeship, that it is popularly more easy to recognize a scientist than to know what science is.

This is understandable in many respects given that (as Bernal again traces) science came to us through the bourgeois tradition. In much the same way, humanities research is also founded in the bourgeois tradition as Terry Eagleton says

In the early eighteenth century, then, the bourgeois principle of abstract free and equal exchange is elevated from the market-place to the sphere of discourse, to mystify and idealize real bourgeois and social relations. The petty proprietors of a commodity known as ‘opinion’ assemble together for its regulated interchange, at once miming in purer, non-dominative form the exchanges of bourgeois economy, and contributing to the political apparatus which sustains it. The public sphere thereby constructed is at once universal and class-specific” all may in principle participate in it, but only because the class-determined criteria of what counts as significant participation are always unlodgeably in place. The currency of this realm is neither title nor property but rationality – a rationality in fact articulable only by those with the social interests which property generates.

So re-imagining a more democratic future for higher education in Australia is about more than just the structures and the policies that have been put in place – it is about democratising academic work, in the first instance, and accepting that what we are trying to reform is effectively an ideological state apparatus (albeit a really worthwhile one) that reproduces class interests (bourgeois) – our own. With this as our starting point I think it is possible to begin to rally around Connell’s calls.