In the Australian university research landscape, the pursuit of funding often takes precedence over the objectives of research: generating new knowledge, driving innovation, and creating real-world impact. Researchers often find themselves devoting significant time and effort to securing the necessary funding to sustain their research endeavours. Consequently, the focus on obtaining grants and other sources of financial support may inadvertently overshadow the ultimate goal of making meaningful contributions to society.
This article will examine the factors that contribute to the preoccupation with research funding, discuss the negative implications of this myopic focus, and present a case study illustrating how strategic thinking and a broader perspective on research objectives can help researchers refocus on achieving tangible, real-world impact. Through these insights, we aim to encourage researchers to reassess their approach to research planning and execution, guiding them towards more effective, impact-oriented strategies. By embracing this shift in perspective, researchers can maximise the value of their work and ensure that the pursuit of funding serves as a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.
External Pressures and the Narrow Focus on Funding
External pressures and structural factors in research funding contribute significantly to the narrow focus on securing funds. In Australia, research funding for universities is largely dependent on project grants from organisations such as the Australian Research Council (ARC), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), and more recently the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). Moreover, institutional research block grants (RBG) are largely predicated on the amount of grant funding institutions receive. As a result, the success of a research institution or individual researcher is often measured in terms of the grants they secure.
This funding environment has created a culture where researchers' careers are built on grant funding, leading to a preoccupation with securing funds. Strategic thinking and the pursuit of real-world impact can consequently be sidelined. This hinders researchers from fully realising the potential of their work, as their focus is consumed by the constant search for financial resources.
While it is understandable how these external factors shape researchers' decisions, it is crucial to re-examine the balance between funding pursuits and the overarching goals of research. The challenge is how to maintain a clear focus on achieving real-world impact, while successfully navigating the complexities of the funding landscape. Realigning priorities can help researchers achieve greater impacts on society.
Adopting a Strategic Mindset for Research Impact
To overcome the intense focus on funding, researchers must adopt a strategic mindset that prioritises the real-world impact of their work. This involves stepping back from the immediate goal of securing funding and examining the broader context in which their research exists. By identifying the industries, stakeholders, and potential partners that can benefit from their research, researchers can gain valuable insights into how their work can make a tangible difference in the world.
This strategic approach requires researchers to critically assess their objectives and identify potential synergies between their research and the needs of external partners. Collaboration with industry, government, and community stakeholders can create opportunities for researchers to leverage their expertise and resources to solve real-world problems. By focusing on the broader context and potential applications of their research, researchers can develop a more comprehensive understanding of the impact their work can have on society.
Furthermore, by prioritising impact and strategic thinking, researchers can better position themselves to secure funding from a diverse range of sources. Funders and partners are increasingly looking for projects that demonstrate clear pathways to impact and potential benefits for the wider community. By emphasising the real-world applications and potential societal benefits of their work, researchers can increase their chances of securing funding while remaining focused on the ultimate goal of making a meaningful contribution to the world.
A Real-World Example
Let's consider the case of a biotechnology research group we worked with, whose primary goal was to improve human health. They had developed world-leading research with the potential to significantly enhance people's lives but were struggling to secure funding for the next stage of their work. The challenge they faced was that the companies capable of commercialising their technology were primarily based overseas, and Australia lacks the relevant life-sciences industry to support their research. As a result they were struggling to be competitive in funding schemes through MRFF and NHMRC. The single problem they were trying to solve was how to secure a partner to get the grant.
To overcome this obstacle, we encouraged the researchers to step back from their immediate goal of obtaining a research grant and explore the broader context of their research. They began by mapping out the value chain surrounding their research, identifying the upstream and downstream industries and partners that could potentially benefit from their work. This exercise led them to discover that the animal production industry could also derive significant advantages from their research.
Unlike the pharmaceutical sector, the animal production and food export industry is a thriving domestic market in Australia, with numerous major players who routinely support research. This realisation opened the door for the researchers to approach a new set of potential partners who were geographically close and could benefit greatly from their work.
By focusing on the real-world value chain in which their research existed, the group was able to identify new opportunities for collaboration and funding. They discovered that testing and validating their technology in animals was not only more likely to attract willing industry partners in Australia but also advanced their ultimate goal of improving human health. The lower barriers to entry in animal health was an added advantage that accelarated their development. Finally, there was a clear business model the partners could wrap around the technology if it came to pass. In the end, a large financial commitment from an industry partner accelarated the research along the pathway towards commercialisation.
By stepping back from the immediate goal of securing funding, the researchers were able to identify significant new opportunities and partnerships that not only supported their work but also contributed to the broader societal benefits they sought to achieve.
Rethinking our relationship to research funding is fundamental if we are going to unlock the societal benefits of publicly funded research. By shifting focus from securing funding as the primary goal to prioritising real-world impact and value creation, researchers can uncover new opportunities for collaboration, applications of their research and funding mechanisms.
The first step for researchers and institutions should be to consider the broader context in which their work takes place and identify potential partners that share a common interest in the outcomes of their research. Bringing these partners in early to ideate and co-design research programs whould be the second step. By doing so, researchers can create long-lasting relationships with industry partners and stakeholders that contribute to the successful translation of their research into tangible societal benefits.
To achieve this shift in perspective, it's crucial to invest time in strategic thinking and planning up front. This might include mapping out the value chain surrounding research, identifying potential partners and collaborators, or exploring the myriad alternative avenues for funding and support like direct funding, research via procurement, joint ventures. By adopting this approach, researchers will be better positioned to achieve the real-world impact they desire, while simultaneously securing the financial resources they need.