Getting the Measure of Unis’ Output

The Australian Financial Review


By Phil Clark
Business Council of Australia Representative, Research Quality Framework Expert Advisory Group
Member, J.P. Morgan Advisory Council

Businesses wishing to expand their innovation activity face major challenges. It is especially hard to locate Australia's leading researchers in particular fields and to understand the latest research and development outcomes of Australia's universities and publicly funded research institutes, such as the CSIRO.

It's also hard to benchmark Australia's research outcomes. Fortunately, help is at hand.

Representatives of universities, other publicly funded research organisations and business have been examining these problems as part of a joint exercise with the federal government to develop a Research Quality Framework.

Business is a major stakeholder is this debate. The Business Council of Australia, which represents 100 of Australia's largest employers, has been a member of this advisory group.

The BCA is pushing at least two priorities for any future RQF.

First, it has to be capable of assessing both the quality and impact of research in Australia. Secondly, it must make the successes of Australian researchers available in a transparent and useful way.

The new federal Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, is reviewing these recommendations. Our message is this: there is a lot hinging on this initiative including, potentially, the future allocation of public research and development funds to universities.

The BCA's interests lie in how to measure the quality and impact of research efforts, but also in its outcomes. The impact can be judged as the economic, social or environmental outcomes.

Public recognition of these outcomes builds confidence in the publicly funded investment.

What business wants is a framework that supplies information about the directions of research and possible applications.

First, it will help enterprises identify sources of relevant new knowledge and research partners. Secondly, it will give an assurance of the quality of the research in a national and global context.

Developing a framework to assess both quality and impact that is capable of meaningful assessment and useful outcomes is no small challenge.

The good news is Australia can learn from the experience of other countries such as the UK and New Zealand to make sure the Australian RQF process does not have unintended consequences (such as disadvantaging particular groups of researchers or types of research.)

If the proposed model goes ahead, Australia will be the first to include "measures of impact" in its research quality framework. This has generated strong debate and doubt among some commentators that impact can be measured.

But research impact is measurable, despite what critics say. We must include impact measures as well as quality, and recognise that one cannot exist without the other.

The use of surveys, case studies and the tracking of products, services and processes are some of the ways impact can be measured. Trials of universities undertaken by the Australian Technology Network show it can be done.

The RQF has the potential to be an important tool for industry, the community and the economy, and business eagerly awaits the next stage of its development.