Disruption to the culture of academia might be a good thing

We’ve heard that the government’s efforts to improve research commercialisation seek to create cultural changes in Australian research. That might not be such a bad thing.

The recent announcement of a $2.2 billion funding package aimed at improving research commercialisation will require universities to work more closely with industry. Drawing academia and industry together requires cultural change—which is what the Australian Government intends.

Academia is notoriously protective of its culture, so it’s not surprising that despite a cautious welcoming of the new package, there’s a pervasive anxiety that industry as a new driver of value will create an environment that could lead to greater devaluation of the humanities and compromise our fundamental research, which is more about exploring the world than inventing a more efficient wheel.

These are reasonable concerns, but it must also occur to us that there are aspects to the culture of research to which disruption might be very welcome.

The cultural elements that dog academia in general and research in particular are well documented. The maxim ‘publish or perish’ has existed since its first recorded publication in a 1928 academic journal article. High publication pressure results in a lot of very productive writing, of course—but it also results in goal displacement, the devaluation of teaching, and unethical research practices; overall, it detracts from emphasis on best-quality research and creates pressures deleterious to the social good. We have known this for some time.

Research fraud has become an issue of particular concern over the course of the covid-19 pandemic. Even research that is not obviously the product of fraud is not always of high quality, as the retraction of flawed pre-prints regarding covid-19 treatments have shown us. The quality of research is likewise not always assured by the peer review process, a venerable institution that nevertheless relies on the good judgement of actors with their own interests, and does not always merit the conclusions (and sometimes headlines!) that are drawn from it. This is also a result of the specific culture of research in academia.

If achieving greater research commercialisation requires introducing more industry influence into academia and is to disrupt the culture of research in Australia, perhaps that could be a good thing—as long as we take care with what aspects of the culture it disrupts.

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