Overcoming academic barriers to innovation

June 10, 2016

QUT Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Coaldrake on remaining competitive in a knowledge-intensive global economy.

In the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, the messaging is as important as the content.

The agenda states that our future prosperity and well-being are intimately tied to the nation’s ability to innovate, that is, to draw on new ideas to develop new products and services.

This is of course not a new concern. For more than three decades governments have noted that Australia languishes at the low end of international measures of innovation and, in particular, lags well behind other developed nations when it comes to links between university research and the world of business.


“There is clearly a great deal more that can and must be done if we are to truly make the most of our national potential, and if we are to remain competitive in a knowledge-intensive global economy.”


Over the years many programs have been developed to remedy this state of affairs, and across the country we can see the fruits of these endeavours. Webs of connections have developed among our universities nationally, and from universities to the wider world of industry, government, professionals and the wider community.

But there is clearly a great deal more that can and must be done if we are to truly make the most of our national potential, and if we are to remain competitive in a knowledge-intensive global economy.

The fact that we remain behind the international pack in building productive links between our university researchers and those who might put research to practical use indicates that concerted efforts are needed at all levels to overcome some persistent barriers.

One of those barriers comes from what might be thought of as ‘business as usual’ within universities. One of the strengths of universities is that they provide a home for independent-minded and highly intelligent people to pursue their passions and to delve at depth into their areas of speciality.

This strength can be a weakness, however, if universities as a whole are unable to coordinate and support academic expertise in ways that make the whole more than the sum of the parts.

Even the most powerful universities, such as Harvard in the U.S., have long struggled with this issue.

At QUT we have sought to break the mould by making partnerships an integral feature of our research by, for example, establishing research institutes which are not stand-alone ‘research hotels’ but instead bring together researchers from multiple disciplines to work on carefully selected themes, alongside people who can make best use of the research findings.

This approach is most fully developed in health research, at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI), which is complemented by a range of research partnerships. These include other universities, research institutes, hospitals and other public health and clinical players, including the recently established Translational Research Institute.

The goal is not just to translate research into better health products and practice, but also to develop new interdisciplinary models of education and training. Particular examples are the following:

Examples of interdisciplinary models

1. The Centre for Emergency and Disaster Management within IHBI has been developing its international links, hosting 14 present and future leaders from the Maldives, the Philippines and Pakistan for a five-week intensive training program in 2014 to advance disaster risk reduction and management.

2. QUT’s Medical Engineering Research Facility (MERF) at the Prince Charles Hospital Chermside provides a comprehensive suite of research and training facilities in one location. MERF allows researchers in medical and healthcare robotics to develop applications that will be able to be translated directly to human use. Fellowships have been supported by orthopaedics company Stryker to provide training and research in hip and knee replacement surgery, and Professor Ross Crawford has supervised more than 40 PhD students in orthopaedic surgery techniques, with many of these students working in robotics.

Many of these initiatives are relatively new, and sustaining them will require commitment from all partners and ongoing innovation in our own models of working. QUT is determined to see that not only these efforts flourish, but that they also provide a model for innovation and partnerships in other fields. This is evidenced through the following examples.

Providing a model for innovation and partnerships in other fields

1. QUT has put considerable investment over time not only into the institutes but also into ensuring they integrate seamlessly with the rest of the university. For example, developing models of funding and recognition of research outputs that work across institute and faculty boundaries. This enables researchers to move between their academic “home” and the research institute, in contrast to the usual stand-alone model of a research institute.

The institute model is being extended in QUT’s Institute of Future Environments (IFE) which also adopts a multidisciplinary thematic focus to research in major areas of challenge in our natural, built and virtual environments. It also incorporates a range facilities on and off campus, including the Central Analytical Research Facility (CARF), the Samford Ecological Research Facility (SERF), the Banyo Pilot Plant Precinct and the Mackay Renewable Biocommodities Pilot Plant.

2. Within IHBI, research is being translated into improved therapies and support services for patients. Professor David Kavanagh launched a $6.5 million e-mental health initiative in 2014 to train primary health practitioners in the use of e-mental health services. Professor Kenneth Beagley led the development of a new oral vaccine that shows promise for protection against herpes simplex virus and Dr Willa Huston has developed a new chlamydia diagnostic for infertility in women.

3. The IFE’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities researchers have had a significant breakthrough with the world’s first human trial of pro-vitamin A-enriched bananas. The genetically modified bananas have elevated levels of betacarotene to help African children avoid the potentially fatal conditions associated with vitamin A deficiency. This work has been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Professor Peter Coaldrake AO

Vice-Chancellor of QUT

Read next: Dr Krystal Evans, CEO of the BioMelbourne Network on Gender equality and innovation.

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  1. What about the ones from CSIRO who lost their jobs leading up to the discovery of the result that may be due to gravity waves? They seem to be conveniently omitted….don’t we recognize people anymore because they have been sacked/shafted/deleted/terminated/expunged/retrenched?
    http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/csiro-hailed-contribution-to-gravitation-waves-find–for-work-done-by-axed-unit-20160214-gmtmhu.html
    This is happening too often.

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