The concept of the knowledge-based economy emerged as a critical driving force behind economic growth since at least the 1990s. Economies like Australia have invested heavily (at least rhetorically) in the idea an economic system where knowledge creation, dissemination, and application are the primary contributors to wealth generation and societal well-being. During the 1990s, organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) advocated the importance of a robust stock of basic research knowledge, produced primarily by public research organisations like universities, as the foundation upon which private companies would develop innovative products and services. Universities were seen as bastions of basic research, filling a market gap that the private sector could not address.
In recent years, this value proposition has come into question. The shift is due to a range of factors, including external pressures, changes in the types of research conducted within universities, and the emergence of large corporations engaging in basic research activities. In light of these changes, it is essential to re-evaluate the value proposition of university research and understand how it can contribute to addressing complex, multi-disciplinary problems in the modern research and innovation ecosystem.
Navigating the Tides of Change: The Shift from Basic Research in Universities
In past decades, the research activity within universities has undergone a significant transformation. Historically, universities were considered the primary source of basic research, providing a solid foundation upon which private companies could innovate and create novel products and services. However, recent trends indicate a gradual shift from basic research towards more applied research within Australian Higher Expenditure on Research and Development (HERD).
Several factors have contributed to this shift. As universities face increasing pressure to commercialise their research and engage with end users, the focus of research activities has veered more towards applied research with shorter-term applications. This change is further reinforced by funding bodies that emphasise practical outcomes and societal impacts.
Simultaneously, large technology companies, such as Alphabet and Meta, along with pharmaceutical giants like Roche, for example, have increasingly taken on the mantle of conducting basic research in-house. This trend undermines the argument that a market failure in basic research exists, necessitating university involvement.
These shifts raise the question: What is the unique value proposition of universities in the current research and innovation ecosystem?
The most compelling answer lies in their ability to harness their extensive multi-disciplinary capabilities to address complex problems and drive value creation for partners and society. Universities possess a breadth of research expertise across the Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences (HASS) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), and Helath and Medical fields, that is unparalleled by even the largest corporations. By offering up a coordinated version of this broad pool of knowledge, universities can play a unique role in shaping the research and innovation landscape.
In order to fulfil this potential, though, universities must adapt their strategies, organisational structures, and incentive systems to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and problem-solving. The future of university research hinges on the ability to embrace this new paradigm and deliver on their unique value proposition.
Breaking Down the Silos: Overcoming Interdisciplinary Collaboration Challenges in Universities
The fact is that universities struggle to foster effective collaboration across disciplines. This can be attributed to a number of organisational and systemic challenges that hinder the integration of knowledge and expertise from diverse fields.
One of the primary barriers is the deeply ingrained silo mentality that pervades many universities. Academic departments are typically organised along disciplinary lines, creating vertical structures that limit interaction and cooperation across different fields. These divisions are further reinforced by external pressures from funding bodies and learned societies that perpetuate a discipline-centric view of the world.
Moreover, the lack of adequate structural support for interdisciplinary work within and outside universities exacerbates the problem. The absence of appropriate platforms, resources, and incentives for researchers to engage in cross-disciplinary projects deters them from venturing outside their disciplinary comfort zones.
To overcome these challenges and unlock the full potential of interdisciplinary collaboration, universities must adopt an integrated and multi-pronged strategy. Importantly the strategy must be implemented across a whole set of management systems and capabilities. This means, for example, creating cross-cutting organisational units that facilitate interaction among researchers from diverse fields. Importantly, this has to be accompanied by mission- or problem-focused strategies that embolden and engage the full range of disciplinary expertise across the university. Finally, incentive structures and performance evaluation criteria in support of a shift towards problem-solving and mission-oriented research need to be created. Without an integrated set of strategic choices and a holistic approach that emphasises objectives and outcomes, universities will struggle to foster a research culture that nurtures interdisciplinary collaboration and maximises their value proposition.
Seizing the Opportunity: Strategies to Capitalise on Universities' Unique Value Proposition
What does an integrated set of choices look like? By implementing the following recommendations, universities can begin to leverage their value proposition.
- Establish cross-disciplinary organisational units: By creating research centres and institutes that span multiple disciplines, universities can foster an environment that encourages collaboration and exchange of ideas across diverse fields. These units can serve as hubs for interdisciplinary research, providing resources, infrastructure, and support for researchers to work together in pursuit of common objectives. Importantly, these need to have their own dedicated resources and staffing. Too often, such aggregations of researchers are nothing more than in name only, with staff employed within discipline-based faculties and schools.
- Develop mission- or problem-focused strategies: By shifting the focus from discipline-specific goals to addressing complex, real-world problems, universities can bring together researchers from various backgrounds to collaboratively tackle pressing challenges. This approach requires the development of strategic plans that are mission-driven, prioritising interdisciplinary collaboration and identifying synergies across different research areas. This forms the catalyst for the formation of the organisational units above by shifting the focus from disciplines (which are siloed) to problems (which are collaborative). This needs to be done with an eye to the particular problem, however, and not the global problems which often pass for missions. The difference between 'improving human health' and 'reducing the harms associated with alcohol consumption in the state of Victoria by $100m by 2035' should suffice to demonstrate the difference.
- Revamp incentive structures and performance evaluation criteria: In order to support a shift towards problem-solving and mission-oriented research, universities must reassess their existing incentive structures and performance evaluation systems. At present the entire system is geared towards outputs - either in the form of journal publications or grant funding. However, to shift researchers' behaviours towards missions, and to facilitate cross-disciplinary approaches, the incentives must shift towards careful consideration of objectives and outcomes over outputs. This means shifting towards a much more qualitative form of performance management, which will require significant re-skilling amongst research leaders. However, this is the only way to encourage researchers to engage in interdisciplinary work that seeks to address societal and global challenges.
This list is a high level starting point, and the devil as always will be in the detail. But through an integrated approach to breaking down disciplinary silos and fostering a culture of collaboration, universities can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of research and innovation for the betterment of society.
The evolving landscape of research and innovation has raised questions about the unique value proposition of universities and large public research organisations. As the focus of research activities in universities has shifted from basic to applied, and with private companies increasingly undertaking their own basic research, it is essential for universities to reassess their role in the knowledge-based economy.
Universities possess an unparalleled breadth of interdisciplinary expertise, which presents a distinctive advantage in addressing complex, real-world problems. To capitalise on this unique value proposition, they must overcome the challenges of siloed structures and embrace cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Establishing cross-disciplinary organisational units, developing mission- or problem-focused strategies, and revamping incentive structures and performance evaluation criteria, is a starting point for developing an integrated research strategy. By implementing such changes, universities can foster a culture of collaboration that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries, allowing them to contribute significantly to the advancement of knowledge and innovation.
Universities have a vital role to play in addressing the pressing challenges of our time. By embracing their interdisciplinary strengths and focusing on the unique value they can bring to the research and innovation ecosystem, they can continue to drive meaningful impact and maintain their relevance in a rapidly changing world.