Prime Minister Turnbull coined the catchphrase “collaborate or crumble” in December 2015 as he launched the $5 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).
The phrase replaced the longstanding “publish or perish” dictum to engage university researchers with NISA’s ambitious goals. Since then, universities have implemented several of the recommendations from the Watt Review, which was tasked with bringing into force changes to university research funding models to incentivise collaboration with business.
NISA simultaneously introduced financial incentives and initiatives to boost the innovation performance of Australian business.
Some of these opportunities can be leveraged within the framework of the business to business (B2B) model. Considerably more could be leveraged from the still relatively unexploited university to business (U2B) model.
Bringing university to business
A key advantage of the university to business model is that universities aren’t driven by the company bottom line. In principle, this should make cooperation and collaboration significantly easier to manage than in the B2B model.
To take advantage of the NISA incentives and initiatives, however, new U2B collaborations need to be established.
This is a challenge, because university research and Australian business have traditionally existed in parallel universes. One practical strategy is universities opening the doors to their own research hubs.
Established as “knowledge transaction spaces”, similar to industry-led Knowledge Hubs, university research hubs are ideal for university to business interactions because they engage researchers from a broad range of disciplines, with diverse skills sets – a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual resources all in one place.
The Charles Perkins Centre Hub at the University of Sydney, for example, is a melting pot of researchers in metabolic disease, and was established deliberately to be highly interdisciplinary and de-shackled from conventional biomedical research approaches.
Indeed, its approach is strongly aligned with the “convergence” strategy advocated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in their 2016 report, based on an earlier white paper.
The University of Sydney’s newest research hub is the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, part of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. Although STEM-focused, nanoscience and nanotechnology involves diverse disciplines and has broad applications, some of which cannot even be imagined.
While quantum computing is attracting enormous interest from business, some researchers are looking to biology for inspiration to design next-generation nanotechnology devices. Why biology? Because every interaction between molecules in living organisms occurs on nano-scales.
In fact, some proteins are even referred to as “nano-machines” and because they operate so efficiently in such a busy, compact environment, they potentially hold the clue to discovering how to make practical quantum computers work in the real world.
Similarly, bio-inspired nanotechnology devices, designed to emulate brain-like adaptive learning, open up the possibility of neuromorphic “synthetic intelligence” hardware in next-generation autonomous systems.
Such synthetically intelligent robots could be sent to remote, unexplored places, such as the deep ocean or deep space. They could be used in place of real humans without requiring any pre-programming; information processing and critical decision making would occur on the fly, in real time – just as if they were real humans.
Collaborate and accelerate
The benefits of collaboration may seem obvious, but sometimes it is worth stating the obvious from different perspectives. When people interact, they self-organise, forming groups that operate collectively to achieve imperatives as well as unexpected outcomes.
These outcomes would otherwise not be possible at the individual level – the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. We experience this every day now through social media.
In the internet age that we find ourselves in today, it has never been more important to collaborate, simply because of the sheer volume of information we have access to and the increasing rate at which this data is growing.
We cannot feasibly keep up with this as individuals, but as teams, we can.
Knowledge can be gained by individuals much more effectively through interactions with others than by searching the internet or reading a research publication.
That new shared information can be applied more efficiently. This means that through collaboration, researchers and business can accelerate their progress on the path to success, however they each choose to measure it.
Founding Co-Director, Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, The University of Sydney
Read next: Professor Andrew Rohl, Director of the Curtin Institute for Computation, compares academic collaboration with partnerships that involve industry.
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