ACDS – AGM and Conference: University Science – Industry Forum

In our final series of speaker notes from the Annual General Meeting and Conference we present the following summary of the University Science – Industry Forum presentation. This is a new initiative of the ACDS that aims to showcase the interactions between discovery and outcome-oriented research, and will promote the value of research students and of industry to each other.

Introductory Comments – Professor John Bartlett, Director ACDS National Research Forum

For some time now, the ACDS has been considering how to promote the necessary organisational and cultural change that would facilitate better science-industry engagement within our Institutions. One of the key initiatives that we have been exploring, as discussed in several ACDS forums including last year’s AGM, is the establishment of an annual national event that seeks to highlight the potential of careers in industry for science PhD graduates and conversely, the value that such highly trained problem-solvers can bring to Industry. During 2021, ANSTO has been running an event for a small number of our PhD students based on some of our early ideas around how such an initiative might proceed. However, in developing this initiative and refining our own thoughts, it has been pointed out by some of our colleagues that substantial activity of this kind is already occurring through ARC Industrial Training Transformation Centres (ITTCs), Industrial Transformation Research Hubs (ITRHs), their predecessors, and various national facilities and research institutes. As an example, nine such ITTCs have commenced during the past three years alone that are aligned with two-digit FORs directly relevant to University Science (as opposed to, for example engineering or health), which embed over 90 Level E academics. There are also now well-established “Industry Professor” roles in many Universities which can, among other things, serve as critical knowledge brokers between industry and university researchers to promote and facilitate high-tech skills transfer, as well as highlighting the importance of basic research. A part of the cultural transformation that such roles can promote is the need to help our people to develop the skills necessary to build relationships with Industry colleagues rather than other academic colleagues and to understand the different perspectives and language of industry. Conversely, they can also help Industry to understand the perspectives and language of Academia.

However, teams such as the ITTCs and ITRHs are typically small organisations, often seen through the lens of their host institutions, with little public visibility and little opportunity for communication and collaboration between them. Hence, there is a need to draw them into a national forum that gives them a stronger sense of identity, in particular an identity that speaks to the engagement of science with end-users and the possibilities for all parties involved.

The ACDS therefore proposes to host a national forum, with the first of these to be held in the second half of 2022, that will showcase the activities of these organisations. Our aspirations for these events are broad and multifaceted. For example, it will highlight the translation of university science into industry and its contribution to developing Australia’s sovereign capability in high-technology innovation. It will also showcase the variety of relationships between academic organisations and industry, as well as the symbiotic relationship between fundamental research and its applications. Finally, it will play the important role of building and showcasing long-term partnerships that embed our research students.

A National Forum will improve connectivity between ITTCs, ITRHs, research institutes and the like, providing opportunities to establish networks, compare organisational models, and in general learn from each other. From our perspective, it will be a natural showcase for research translation, for career options for research students, and for Industry collaborations for academics. It will provide greater insight into and opportunity for collaborative projects, supporting postdoctoral positions and Category four grant funding, while providing pathways to connect with State Government strategic programs supporting high-tech industry development. Perhaps most important of all, it will provide the compelling stories than can demonstrate the fantastic career opportunities for our students in Industry.

The remainder of the session featured three short presentations to illustrate the vision for the USIF:

  • The first of these was from Professor Antonio Patti from Monash, who is the Director of the ARC Training Centre for Green Chemistry in Manufacturing. Building on significant earlier work at Monash, this ITTC is demonstrating to PhD students the real opportunities for fulfilling and challenging careers outside of academia and building relationships that generate new funding support for Universities.
  • The second was from Professor Stella Valenzuela at UTS, who is the Director of the ARC ITRH – Integrated Device for End-User Analysis at Low Levels (IDEAL), which addresses industry demand for fundamental research in areas such as diagnostics, and serves as a powerful example of the successful translation of fundamental research.
  • Finally Associate Professor Craig Priest from UniSA, who is the Deputy Director of IDEAL and the SA Node Director of the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF_SA) highlighted novel approaches for meeting industry’s demands for skills and capabilities in high-tech research infrastructure – and in serving the needs of the National innovation system – via an integrated skills model that spans the range from apprenticeships to PhDs.

Professor Antonio Patti, Director, ARC ITTC – Green Chemistry in Manufacturing, Monash

As we know, the majority of science PhD graduates from Australian Universities do not obtain academic appointments, with many seeking employment opportunities in industry.

We often hear that some industries are reluctant to employ a PhD graduate, with their preference being to hire someone “less qualified” since their perspective is that they will need to invest resources to train new graduates irrespective of their level of formal qualification. Hence, the “experience” the PhD graduate brings to industry is often seen as irrelevant – they are no more employable than a Bachelor or Honours graduate. Our challenge is to overcome these issues and attitudes, and having the PhD researcher, academics and industry working closely together is the best way in which to achieve such outcomes.

In Australia, ARC-Industry co-funded Transformation Training Centres, Hubs, CRCs and the like have provided ideal structures and opportunities through which to demonstrate the value of PhD graduates to Industry. Taking as an example the ARC ITTC – Green Chemistry in Manufacturing, which focuses on the Chemical Industry and enhancing the use of resources in manufacturing, the Centre’s aspiration is to produce PhD graduates who Industry will want to employ and to dispel the negative attitudes and perceptions articulated above. The nurturing of relationships between Industry and Academia is a key part of the process, together with investing the time required to develop the necessary trust to support meaningful collaborations that generate funding. This is where PhD alumni can play a critical role, and PhD student researchers working with Industry partners on projects of mutual interest play an important role in building and maintaining relationships.

The key elements for building the necessary Industry/Academia frameworks include:

  • The relationships between Industry and Academic partners must be close, with opportunities for mentoring and regular communication being actively fostered. The experience of academics involved in the ARC ITTC – Green Chemistry in Manufacturing (with over 20 Industry partners) is that the ITTC does not hinder the research effort and/or publications.
  • The research student training program is very important and industry partners must contribute. It has to be of the highest quality, effectively replacing what industry might require of a new graduate employee. It also builds a strong shared experience for the participating students and Post-Doctoral Fellows, who will often be located in different Schools/Faculties and/or distributed across different Universities.
  • Networking events that bring all parties together are also very important, not only for the students but also for the Academics and Industry partners. Such events also ensure that the students are exposed to all Industry partners.
  • Opportunities for Internships.
  • Collaboration is important and provides Industry with the opportunity to access resources and expertise that might not otherwise be available to them.

Participation in ITTCs has many benefits for both Academic and Industry partners, in addition to the obvious benefits to enhancing Australian Sovereign Capability:

  • While the PhD graduates are highly “employable”, participation in an ITTC does not exclude them from pursuing Post-Doctoral Fellowships and academic careers. They will still benefit from the industry insights gained from such PhD experiences.
  • Apart from the obvious funding that comes from formal bids for ITTCs and ITRHs, the Industry/Academic relationships forged typically bring other funds into the university, such as separate ARC Linkage bids, equipment provided by Industry and favourable consideration in other funding bids. Both State and Federal Governments value such partnerships.

Professor Stella Valenzuela, Director, ARC ITRH – IDEAL, UTS

ITRHs were established with the clear aim of transforming Australian Industry via strategic integration of University Research with Industry. The IDEAL Hub is one of around 47 such Hubs that have been funded since the inception of the ITRH scheme, which commenced in 2012. Around 57 ITTCs have also been funded since that time.

The lived experience of participants in the IDEAL Hub is that building partnerships between teams of researchers and Industry partners, backed with sufficient funding and infrastructure support, leads to breakthroughs and effective translation of research. An obvious example is the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. Even though the vaccines appeared to be rapid breakthroughs, they were based on many years of prior R&D. In fact, the technology underpinning the vaccines can be traced back to work commenced around 30 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. The current pandemic created the perfect circumstances required to catalyse the clearance of regulatory hurdles and gave the final translational push needed to usher this technology into mainstream use. The COVID‑19 challenge provided the necessary focussed research effort, coupled with sufficient funding and resources, to demonstrate efficacy and translate this R&D into widespread use.

How do we now harness these lessons to ensure the future success of research and technology translation? In particular, how do we ensure that the pipeline of innovation is maintained through well-funded basic research that is prioritised not only by Universities, but also by Government and policy makers at a time when our Government is now focussed mainly on commercialisation? Similarly, we also need to ensure that the value of basic research is seen as an integral component of business models and private investment by Industry; without such basic research, there will be nothing to translate. It is “curiosity driven research” that creates new knowledge and if we do not engage appropriately in the quest for new knowledge, we will be unlikely to reach the point where academics will be properly rewarded for their breakthrough research and their engagement with business. These questions and observations suggest that a major culture change is required across the national innovation ecosystem.

Such culture change requires a concerted effort and unified action to ensure that such issue remain “front and centre”. The ITRHs and ITTCs are an untapped resource for driving such change, insofar as they are entities where a meaningful balance between discovery and translation can be struck, as well as providing a rich learning resource and collaborative opportunities. Such opportunities are developed through an end-user lens, with multiple projects (encompassing multiple disciplines) typically underway within each ITRH/ITTC at various stages of maturity along the technology-readiness scale. This provides genuine opportunities for meaningful translational outcomes. A critical part of this process is relationship building and nurturing genuine partnerships between the various stakeholders.

As an example, in the IDEAL hub, researchers work directly with industry partners while maintaining a close alignment with end users. This promotes an understanding of the different motivations/ perspectives and the different ways in which Academia and Industry operate, thus enhancing the alignment of priorities and perspectives. Often, Academic colleagues need to consider new ways of working, and new ways in which to present their data and findings to Industry partners so that the latter can engage with the research outputs. The pace and emphasis of the work is also often shifted when meeting the needs of Industry. Flexibility and the capacity to pivot rapidly become critical when overcoming obstacles and external threats, or to embrace new opportunities. As an example, a research direction that was being pursued within IDEAL to address cancer was swiftly redirected towards the development of a rapid COVID test and has now led to a new business partnership. University systems also need to be flexible and to ensure that, for example, they can process new contracts on short notice when new opportunities arise.

ITRH teams typically consist of researchers, technicians, business partners, marketing development experts, etc, with diverse backgrounds, age differences, differing life experiences, differing skills sets, etc. In a real sense, they are melting pots, where diversity acts as a driver for innovation and creativity – indeed, the more diversity, the better the outcomes. IDEAL is also developing processes to streamline technology transfer, which provides additional training opportunities for the next generation of leaders – Post-Doctoral Fellows and PhD students.

A final point is that ITRHs and ITTCs represent an existing organised resource that can be tapped for common experiences and sharing of lessons learned and best-practice approaches. They also serve to provide Industry advocacy of the value of University research and our important role in serving society. We need to become more skilful when highlighting the role of Universities in creating wealth and in helping society to overcome future challenges, and ITRHs/ITTCs have an obvious role to play.

Associate Professor Craig Priest, Director, ANFF_SA, Uni SA

The phrase “we are all in this together” is a perfect description of innovation and the innovation ecosystem, which is very much a “team sport” involving many players taking different roles that support shared aspirations and goals. Industry, Government and Universities must play as a team to promote Australia’s innovation system. A key role for Universities in this team sport is creating highly skilled people, particularly when we have a national STEM skills shortage. However, major research infrastructure, together with the expertise of the people who maintain and operate this infrastructure, are also vital members of the Australian Innovation Ecosystem team.

The ANFF_SA is one of eight nodes of the Australian National Fabrication Facility, which is distributed across 20 Australian Universities. It is well known that the ANFF houses major world-class NCRIS infrastructure. What is less well-known is that the ANFF also employs 100 technical staff with expertise in precision manufacturing, who are also distributed across the eight nodes. These technical staff train our HDR students and ECRs in the use of the ANFF infrastructure that will be a critical enabler for the development of tomorrow’s technologies and Australia’s future high-value manufacturing industry. As one example, the students working within the IDEAL ITRH at UniSA who have been trained in the use of the ANFF_SA infrastructure have been able to achieve remarkable outcomes that would not be possible without access to the ANFF infrastructure and – equally importantly – the support and training provided by the technical staff. The SA node alone has supported over $100M of research activity over the past five years, demonstrating its important connections to the national innovation system and the development of Australia’s Sovereign Capability.

In 2014, the ANFF_SA team held their first Microengineering Winter School. The technical team were the teaching staff at the School, despite the fact that most of them had never previously delivered a lecture or designed a laboratory teaching program. The event was an outstanding success, and since then, the technical team have now delivered eight Winter Schools (involving over 100 presentations and 300 practical sessions) which have facilitated and enriched the practical training of around 450 students in world class microengineering science. It is now the flagship event of the ANFF_SA node. Most importantly, it brings the ANFF_SA team and infrastructure to the cutting edge in training highly skilled people. Anecdotal evidence from the participants has shown that this training has helped to inform their career choices, with many now working for the ANFF_SA’s Industry partners. Equally importantly, these individuals are now delivering lectures and practical sessions within the Winter Schools and thus helping to train the next generation of graduates.

A more recent innovation of the ANFF_SA is the employment of their first apprentice. Although TAFE is formally educating the apprentice, all of the associated practical experience is being gained through working with a member of the ANFF_SA technical team who is a micromachining technologist with responsibility for micro-milling infrastructure that is unique within the Southern Hemisphere. He joined the ANFF_SA team with prior experience working in a Formula 1 Engineering team and his work over the past five years in space, defence and medical technologies has been in huge demand both by Industry and Academia.

Overall, the technical staff are an integral part of the innovation team that has been assembled at the ANFF_SA, and the expertise that they provide is an example of the importance of integrating skills and expertise at all levels to support and enhance Australia’s national innovation ecosystem.

Questions from the Floor

  • Question: Are there any particular defining characteristics of PhD students who have chosen to engage with projects that involve partnerships between Industry and Academia?

Response: In many cases, students have undertaken PhDs within the ITTCs and ITRPs because of the Industry links, in the belief that such experience will enhance their future employability and provide them with fulfilling and intellectually challenging positions in Industry. Students are now looking more carefully at what their post-PhD career opportunities might look like.

  • Question: How do we “normalise” the positive experiences that PhD students clearly have enjoyed while working within ITTCs and ITRPs (and the like) so that they become a “business as usual” part of the research student experience?

Response: The USIF is an important first step on this particular journey. It would be useful to establish a national body to promote the value of such interactions. We should also engage directly with Industry Bodies to ensure that they are aware of initiatives such as the USIF, given the potentially important and impactful role of the latter as advocates to Government, Policy Makers and the wider Business Community.