Image: Dr Anna Coussens, Laboratory Head in Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Division, WEHI. Supplied
University science research falls into two categories when it comes to funding. On one side: fundamental research, generally supported directly by universities or by Australian Research Council (ARC) grants. On the other side is funding directed at commercial outcomes. For this, researchers often look to industry partners, and apply for National Health and Medical Research Council grants, ARC Linkage projects, Co-operative Research Centre programs and others.
This duality, however, oversimplifies the complex, iterative process of university science. Researchers work across every part of the spectrum, from seeking fundamental knowledge to developing participatory outcomes that include benefits to end users, influence on policy, commercial partnerships and outcomes.
“At WEHI (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute), our successes, particularly in cancer and malaria drugs, have involved over 20 years of basic science,” said Dr Anna Coussens, Laboratory Head in Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Division.
“Understanding the fundamental processes of cells and their interaction with pathogens allows us to identify potential targets for drug development. Everyone is working on fundamental questions, and together we can come up with ideas that create real clinical outcomes.”
Working with community and industry
Environmental scientist Professor Peter Macreadie, head of Deakin University’s Blue Carbon Lab, says their work is rooted in both fundamental research and practical outcomes. His lab collaborates with end users, including community and industry, to ensure “real-world impact for the communities we serve, from governments and industry to everyday people — and the planet as well.
“We’re on site with these companies and on field, we’re making sure our Indigenous partners are on board as well,” he said. “Without universities we wouldn’t have the data to back up the concept of the wealth of natural capital.”
Collaboration is an integral part of university science, resulting in exchanges of ideas that lead to innovation and progress. For example, innovations in tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis and management helped countries with robust TB public health systems to respond more quickly and appropriately to COVID-19, said Coussens.
This research continuum in science can be compared to a value chain in business: a progression of activities that allows us to build and develop solutions — even when we don’t know what they will turn out to be. Unlike in business, however, university science has an intrinsic value at the start: changing the very way we see the world.
The instrinsic value of research
It’s impossible to know what direction fundamental research will go: and questioning its value is like asking what use a newborn baby is. It might grow up to be a nurse who looks after you. But their worth goes far beyond that.
Today, science is delivering innovation from previous decades faster than ever before. Quantum technologies took 100 years to mature, molecular biology 70 years, AI just 50. Expedited development of COVID-19 vaccines is expected to benefit the development of other vaccines as well.
To better reflect how researchers work, collaborative spaces like universities need funding at all stages of research, from the first seed of an idea to its outcome. The massive philanthropic investment of funding during COVID-19 is a case in point: a huge network of people came together to create a strong ‘pull’ on the research sector. The science research ecosystem was able to quickly respond, leveraging existing networks, broad knowledge and the innovative applications of this knowledge. “Philanthropy created a quick turnaround on research funding. It shows what you can do quickly if you try,” said Coussens.
To foster industry growth, it’s crucial to understand the intrinsic value of university science, how good our value chains are and which are our important ones — including their limitations and what the ultimate applications might be.
There are 19 quantum-related companies in Australia that have received funding and investment of over $400 million in recent years. Speaking at the CSIRO Quantum Commercialisation Forum recently, Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic said quantum is a good example of how Australia can be world leaders, and not just focus on “small parts of the value chain”.
“Investment in innovation, science and research lays the foundation for ground-breaking technologies and improved products and processes,” he said.
The case for this surely begins with university science.
Written by Heather Catchpole