October 4, 2023

Beyond commercialisation to the full societal impact of research

By Dr David Phipps and Paul Harris

A quick survey of any news site will reveal a wide range of issues facing our societies, where the knowledge and expertise in our universities can make a valuable contribution. Living standards among Indigenous peoples, affordable housing, bushfires, the impacts of AI and the skills needed for new jobs, health and aged care, and the list goes on.

These are the issues that university academics are working on every day – conducting research, gathering data, developing new theories and approaches, teaching the next generation and sharing their knowledge.

These big issues are also captured in national priorities for research and science – in Canada, the government has five science, technology and innovation objectives encompassing 58 specific areas of focus, all underpinned by advanced technologies and the social sciences and humanities. And in Australia, the previous set of national priorities is now being reviewed and updated by the government’s Chief Scientist. Last week she released four new draft national priorities for Australia: ensuring a net zero future and protecting Australia’s biodiversity; supporting healthy and thriving communities; enabling a productive and innovative economy; and building a stronger, more resilient nation.

Government policy in both countries in recent years has prioritised research commercialisation – incentivising universities and academics to collaborate more with industry and measuring success with indicators such as the number of patents, the licensing of intellectual property and the creation of start-up companies.

In Australia this has most notably been through the government’s $2.2 billion University Research Commercialisation Action Plan, announced early in 2022. In Canada, the Ontario government recently launched a Commercialization and IP Framework and created a new government agency to drive commercialization activities in the post-secondary sector.

However, at least half of Canada’s objectives will never be realised by filing a patent application or starting up a new company. Similarly, meeting the new Australian priorities for research will require approaches that go well beyond commercialisation.

We are never going to patent our way to reconciliation.

In order to address big national issues, we need a much broader approach that incentivises and supports the mobilisation and translation of all the knowledge generated in universities to all sectors of the economy and society. Commercialisation is one important pathway to impact, but there are many more.

Research Impact Canada – a network of 30 universities and research institutes – was created to build capacity for knowledge mobilisation with a focus on the non-economic impacts of research. These include the significant contributions made by researchers to public policy, social services, community development and professional practice. These can be harder to quantify than commercial impacts, but they are no less important for our ability to achieve national goals.

For example, research on youth homelessness conducted by York University academics in partnership with A Way Home Canada, a national non-profit organisation, is helping thousands of Canadian youth to stay in school, re-establish positive relationships with family, obtain employment and avoid the criminal justice system.

In Australia, the Innovative Research Universities – a group of seven universities across the country – are also focusing on these impacts. Over the last decade, the universities in the IRU have increased their collaboration with industry by over 260%. But they have done this while also maintaining disproportionately high levels of collaboration with partners in the public and community sectors. The IRU universities are deeply connected to their local communities and committed to making a difference in all parts of society.

The Interim Report of the Australian Universities Accord and the recent review of the Australian Research Council both clearly signal the importance of research impact and of benefits that go beyond commercialisation and economic returns to broader social and public goods. Both also have a welcome focus on the importance of Indigenous knowledges and the role of universities and research in building a more equitable and resilient society.

But in setting out its considerations for further action, the Accord Interim Report defaults to research commercialisation as the priority for next steps. There is a growing mis-alignment between our national goals and the policy and funding approaches we currently have to meet them. We should seize the opportunity provided by the Accord and ARC Review to create a new framework. The diversity of impacts from research means that there can be no one single metric or template for capturing impact, but that diversity is a strength.

A new framework should encourage researchers to think about impact from the beginning of their projects, rather than trying to measure it after the fact. It should support partners from community as well as public sector agencies to engage on an equal footing with academic researchers. It should build capacity for this work across the country and support collaboration rather than creating more rankings that drive competition. Universities should be accountable for the impact they deliver to society, with funding linked to their unique missions.

We can also increase our impact into the future by working together and learning from each other. By supporting the sharing of best practice across our networks, we can maximise our contribution to the big issues facing our societies.

Dr David Phipps is Assistant Vice-President for Research Strategy and Impact at York University and the Network Director of Research Impact Canada. Paul Harris is Executive Director of the Innovative Research Universities.

This article first appeared in The Australian.