The value of university science

April 18, 2023

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe asserts that university research is never just basic, or just commercialisable: it’s a complex value chain that drives innovation.

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering explores the true value of university science.

I moved from science to business, and as such I’m deeply passionate about the research that delivers impact. 

Growing up, I knew that the only thing I wanted to be was a scientist. I did a PhD in chemistry before moving into the commercial world as director and chair of multiple high-profile organisations with a basis in science. I was on the board of several Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs) as well as Sirtex, a listed ASX100 company making a liver cancer treatment, developed with the ongoing research contributions of the University of Western Australia. Sirtex was ultimately sold offshore for A$1.9 billion.

While this commercialisation story is one measurement of innovation involving university research, it’s by no means the only one. The university-science research value chain is complex, iterative, and has value at all stages. There are many steps along the ‘runway’ of innovation and all of us — the researchers, the end users, those of us in leadership, and those just starting out — play a role in its ultimate course.

Heading for growth

Universities are fertile ground for innovative growth. At every point of the research value chain, the uncovering of new knowledge, driving of new processes, and a broad network of highly skilled people can create different outcomes. Today’s biodiversity research is tomorrow’s global virus response, and today’s fundamental space studies are tomorrow’s data-driven insights (which is how Wi-Fi originated in radiophysics research).

This is partly why the Australian Academy of Science recently called for Australian Research Council (ARC) grants to restore and safeguard support for fundamental research. The networking, technical capacity, collaboration and ideation within university science supports new insights and drives whole new industries.

It is also important to note that many university-led centres and industry collaborations deliver pure public good research. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, (now Natural Hazards Research Australia), which I chaired, is a partnership of 29 university partners and multiple state, local, and national associations, governments, and agencies. It has saved countless lives through communication of bushfire risk. 

Another organisation I had a long involvement with was the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems (ACE) CRC, a multidisciplinary partnership of 23 national and international organisations of which the University of Tasmania was a valuable partner. The ACE CRC informed governments to drive policy change in protecting Antarctic waters and land, as well as developing a greater understanding of the role of Antarctica in the global climate engine.

Cementing outcomes

The scope of university science outcomes is huge. It includes high-profile commercialisable research, such as green hydrogen or quantum information systems technology,  “blue sky” research and its new directions: it also drives policy and understanding that is essential as we face a challenging future. 

This is the bedrock upon which we must build to deliver further impact down the line. Without these ‘runways’ of research, we won’t have the innovation to deliver future commercial and public good benefits for Australia and the world. 

Written by Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, President, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering

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