From Missions to Outcomes: Redefining Research Strategies for Greater Impact

The following is a series of reflections based on reading "University-led mission-oriented research and innovation: A Framework for catalysing large-scale transdisciplinary research" Monash University. I am grateful to them for putting this document together and sharing it with me. It is an important contribution to rethinking the role of Australian university research.


Distinguishing between outcome-oriented and mission-oriented research is crucial for organisation addressing complex societal challenges. Understanding these paradigms can significantly impact strategic planning and resource allocation. Outcome-oriented research focuses on achieving specific, measurable goals, allowing for clear progress tracking and real-time adjustments. In contrast, mission-oriented research involves rallying resources around broad, long-term objectives, emphasising the journey rather than the destination.

This article explores the key differences between these approaches, their implications for research organisations, and actionable strategies to enhance research outcomes. By adopting an outcome-oriented strategy, research organisations can align their efforts with societal needs, ensure accountability, and increase the public benefits of research.

Terminology and Distinction

Outcome-Oriented Research focuses on achieving specific, measurable outcomes. These outcomes are either accomplished or not, allowing for clear progress tracking. For example, a research initiative aimed at eradicating a disease would monitor the reduction in disease prevalence until eradication is achieved. This approach enables clear real-time monitoring and prospective thinking, similar to measuring the distance from point A to point B. Closing the gap and emissions reductions are obvious examples of this kind of thinking.

Mission-Oriented Research, in contrast, involves rallying resources around a common purpose without necessarily having a binary outcome in mind. This approach emphasises the benefits that arise from pursuing the mission, often identified retrospectively. For instance, a broad initiative to improve public health might encompass various activities that contribute to overall health improvements without a single, measurable outcome. Often it is the spillover benefits that are most important rather than the tangible, pre-defined outcome. Another example is fostering innovation, where the goal is to stimulate economic growth and technological advancement rather than achieving a specific, measurable target.

Distinguishing between these paradigms is important due to their different measures of success. Outcome-oriented research allows for straightforward progress tracking and planning, while mission-oriented research often requires retrospective analysis to unpick things like causality and attribution of impacts to particular participants or pieces of research. This distinction impacts how research is strategised, funded, and evaluated. And while there is growing momentum in Australia and across the European Union (EU) for more mission-oriented research, research organisations are better off positioning for outcome-oriented research is they are seeking to maximise the public benefits of their research.

The question is, how should organisations optimise for outcomes?

Proposed Action Area 1: Neutral Actor Role

The university-sector is rife with mechanisms - from the track record section of project grant applications to Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA)–that ask institutions to demonstrate individual achievements, fostering a competitive environment.

This is often highly divisive and hinders collaboration. The emphasis in the UK's Research Excellence Framework (REF) on attribution and causality, for example—where institutions must demonstrate their specific contributions to social, environmental, health and economic impact—reinforces silos between actors within the system–including other research organisations, researchers, as well as external partners. The emphasis is on what one actor contributed, not the collaborative effort nor the sum total achieved.

Proposed Role for Universities:

  • Act as neutral nodes: Universities can connect various participants across the value chain, facilitating collaboration between industry, government, and other academic institutions. This role involves universities stepping away from competition and focusing on collaboration to address common challenges.
  • Amplify the impact for and with others: Universities can bring together diverse stakeholders, acting as conveners of research programs that require interdisciplinary efforts and diverse expertise, rather than individual, isolated projects.
  • Enhance connectivity and collaboration: Serving as unbiased facilitators, universities can encourage open sharing of knowledge and resources. This approach reduces barriers to collaboration, promoting a more inclusive research environment.

It is more or less what Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) were supposed to be, although sticking to the ideal where there is a strong outcome focus and where agendas are jointly designed and executed by multiple participants, and not just an extension of university research activity.

By adopting a more neutral role as a participant and facilitator, universities can overcome competitive barriers, fostering a collaborative ecosystem where participants work together towards shared goals.

This not only enhances the effectiveness of research but also builds stronger relationships across sectors, leading to more sustainable and impactful outcomes. It does require a shift from a fragmented, competitive funding landscape to one that prioritises strategic, collaborative research programs designed to achieve specified societal benefits.

Proposed Action Area 2: Funding Models and Incentive Mechanisms

The atomised funding model for individual projects limits the scope and impact of research initiatives. To address this, a shift towards funding large, programmatic research initiatives is necessary. Current funding mechanisms often only support individual researchers or small teams, leading to fragmented efforts and incremental solutions at best. They also lead to low levels of continuity in research agendas and stalled progress.

Proposed Changes for Universities:

  • Universities should fund more large-scale, programmatic research initiatives: Support comprehensive research efforts by allocating significant resources to multi-disciplinary teams working on long-term projects with clear, outcome-oriented goals.
  • Government should provide more funding for institutional investment in strategic, outcome-oriented research: Governments should provide institutions with more substantial, flexible funding, allowing them to prioritise strategic initiatives that align with their strengths and societal needs.
  • Encourage strategic differentiation and specialisation across the sector: Reduce competition and promote collaboration by allowing institutions to focus on their areas of expertise, fostering collaboration rather than competition for the same funding pools.

By operating programs, universities can bring together diverse teams and resources, driving significant advancements and innovations. By adopting these changes, research organisations can focus on long-term, impactful research that addresses significant societal challenges.

This not only enhances the quality and impact of research but also encourages a more collaborative and strategic research environment. Aligning funding and other incentives with collective objectives fosters a culture where researchers are motivated to work together towards common goals, like developing innovative and effective solutions to complex societal issues.

Proposed Action Area 3: Barriers to Collaboration

Discipline-based organisational structures create financial and operational silos that hinder cross-disciplinary collaboration. These barriers are entrenched in the financial practices of research organisations, making it difficult for researchers to collaborate across disciplines. For example, funding is often allocated based on departmental budgets, limiting the ability to pool resources for interdisciplinary projects.

Proposed Solutions:

  • Develop institutional frameworks that promote cross-disciplinary collaboration: Create dedicated funding streams for interdisciplinary research and establish formal structures like research centres or institutes that bring together experts from different fields. This needs to be more than just a re-badge of school or faculty staff, however. They must be properly staffed and funded with their own resources, and a mandate for outcomes.
  • Align individual efforts with broader strategic goals of the organisation: Encourage researchers to align their projects with institutional priorities and societal needs to break down silos and foster a more collaborative environment. This means shifting the goalposts for career progression from individual performance measures to collective performance measures based on earnest progress towards outcomes.

Successful examples include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab, which works at the intersection of technology, media, and design. MIT Media Lab is underpinned by its own revenue model to employ its staff and deploy against strategic priorities. By providing a collaborative space and resources, it enables researchers from various disciplines to work together on ground-breaking projects.

Overcoming these barriers requires a cultural and structural shift within institutions, fostering an environment where interdisciplinary research is encouraged and supported. This involves financial and structural changes but also promoting a mindset that values collaboration.


Distinguishing between outcome-oriented and mission-oriented research is vital for research organisations aiming to tangibly address complex societal challenges. Outcome-oriented research, with its emphasis on specific, measurable outcomes, provides a clear framework for progress and accountability.

There are clear steps organisations can take towards reorganising for outcome-oriented research:

  • Acting as neutral facilitators, universities can enhance collaboration and connectivity, breaking down competitive barriers.
  • Aligning incentives with collective goals promotes collaboration and long-term focus.
  • Revising funding models to support large, programmatic initiatives can broaden the scope and impact of research.
  • Overcoming structural barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration fosters a more integrated research environment.

Encouraging universities and research organisations to adopt these strategies promotes a more collaborative, outcome-oriented research environment, ultimately leading to greater societal benefits. By embracing these changes, research organisations can better align their efforts with societal needs, ensuring that their work contributes meaningfully to addressing pressing challenges.