Take the Money in the Bag

An all too regular research dog show is coming up to the technical rehearsals right about now. Academics all over the place are checking final outfits, getting a pooch pedicure and making sure their particular project canine looks good from every angle, even the not so palatable ones. It’s competitive grant season and everyone is hoping to be best in show (or just in the show).

An extraordinary amount of time and effort goes into it and there’s much at stake (careers, for example). There’s plenty at stake for universities too. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone pitched up with a big oversized sports bag stuffed with money? No strings attached. Just because they like the look of you. Of course, maybe sometime you’d like to catch up for coffee.  Talk about things that interest you both. People that look like their pets, maybe. Shaving your stomach just the right way to avoid belly button lint. Or maybe some research on vitamins.

“You’ll Feel Better”

How independent is your independence? That’s at the heart of the story relating to La Trobe University’s deal to partner up with Swisse Wellness, purveyors of quality vitamin supplements for all your placebo needs. The announcement of a deal whereby Swisse would hand over $15 million to La Trobe so they can set up a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre caused quite a stir, particularly as the highly principled Associate Professor Ken Harvey promptly handed in his resignation.

La Trobe insists independence is part of the deal. As it would seem the idea is that they will exclusively research products from the chief funder, that is an interesting perspective (using ‘interesting’ in the same sense that I would if confronted with a child named Bizarre Honeyclucks Achocha on an operating list). The mess of this is covered well by Michael Vagg here.

It seems a particularly poor choice in this setting, with Swisse Wellness being particularly notable for its tangles with the TGA and excellent labelling tricks as covered by ‘The Checkout’ (that’s a vid). Perhaps if Swisse were looking to fund a media and marketing studies centre, people would feel that was a more appropriate relationship. They could share tips from their experience (‘Did you know that “You’ll feel better on Swisse” sells better than “Your cognitive dissonance will be supported by the placebo effect of our largely ineffectual supplements that mostly contain stuff already in your diet”?’) Perhaps they could do research exploring examples of correlation vs causation when it comes to sporting performance and signing on as a Swisse ambassador (Lleyton Hewitt, anyone? Ricky Ponting? Oh wait, James O’Connor! Oh, I see).

However, as much as that agreement appears to smell like fish sauce left to percolate in the sun with bat guano, a real discussion about engagement with industry is needed in research circles.

Will La Trobe engineering now be entering funded research to check if boxes of crystals in cars really do realign the molecules in the vehicle? [via beaterblog.com]

Will La Trobe engineering now be starting funded research to check if boxes of crystals in cars really do realign the molecules in the vehicle? [via beaterblog.com]

Oz Research and Industry

Accepting money from industry to fund research can have consequences. As covered in a post here, research funded by a company is immediately given a quality downgrade in medical fields. For the PhD project, the company we’re purchasing the monitoring system from initially asked if we were looking for support (the answer being no, we’re paying for everything outright and retaining independence was part of that).

At the same time, lack of engagement with industry is an issue that has been identified by the Chief Scientist and the Business Council of Australia. For a country that has a reputation for good research, getting that work translated into something that industry will run with appears to be the jump in the steeplechase that makes the runners crash. How to get around this? I could only come up with a couple of seeds to throw into the wind:

1. Engage During Training

If a PhD or Masters is part of a process of learning how to research, shouldn’t that involve learning how to engage with industry? People working in different but potentially related fields are still going to speak different languages, or at least different dialects. How do young researchers get a sense of what industry is after without exposure being part of the learning process?

2. Embedding Researchers in Industry

In a discussion kicked off while Sam Askin was running the @realscientists account, comments were passed about the fact that people with a PhD background aren’t necessarily prized by businesses. A combination of perceived cost, perceived nerdiness of those types and general misunderstanding between the two “camps” was the theme. Surely a PhD indicates that you’re capable of taking on a big project and working away at it consistently while learning?

Promoting the value of those with a research background to business should be core business for universities. In a landscape where there aren’t necessarily enough academic jobs, surely Unis should promote the value of PhDs to business so that those considering going down that path can see it may pay off in a variety of ways in the long term. More people from a research background within businesses would then help both sides understand what needs and skills exist at both ends of the schoolyard.

3. Incentives for Engagement with Industry

The current funding systems within Uni grants aren’t all well geared to supporting engagement with industry. This is covered in a bit more detail here. It seems obvious that having systems which don’t encourage academics to spend more time working with industry are a bit counterproductive.

Most researchers would probably like to see their work get out there to influence the lives of people. Industry will often be needed for that. There is no value in accepting dirty money. There is no need for a bongo circle under a full moon to promote bonding. But there is a need for a bit of thinking.

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