Research the Matters, Episode 6: People and Industry for Impact

Research that Matters | Ep 6 | People and Industry for Impact | Collaboration and Partnership | Teamwork | Large

Research has changed our lives in many ways – from ground-breaking medical treatments to making our workplaces safer. In this episode of Research that Matters, our executive team discuss why research is crucial to building new knowledge, revolutionising practices, and aiding progression.

Research that Matters, Episode 6: People and Industry for Impact

Research that Matters is a 9-part podcast series featuring researchers from Torrens University Australia, who are working towards solving complex global problems and propelling innovation. For more information, and to access all other episodes in the series, click here.

In this episode, you’ll find out about the distinctive approach Torrens University Australia applies to research, and how its researchers are working towards solving the mounting challenges of our time.


Host:             Clement Paligaru (in bold)
Guests:          Professor Alwyn Louw (AL)
                       Professor Kerry London (KL)

Full Transcript

In 1995, a group of researchers identified the first gene associated with epilepsy.  Without that, families would now be missing out on life-changing predictive testing.  Picture a world without research.  It would be a world without the oral vaccine breakthrough, making it difficult to get non-refrigerated shots across to developing countries.  A world where we wouldn't have experienced the invention of an extraordinary technology, the television, and a world where it would have been near impossible to keep flying pests away from us without the discovery of insect repellents.  Research can grow our outlook.

AL:  Research matters because it enables us to understand our world better.  We are able to see new innovation opportunities, because this isn’t how innovation works.  Innovation is not necessarily the product of the creation of new building blocks.  It is often the product of finding new relationships between building blocks.

Research is crucial to building new knowledge.

KL:  Research matters in a university because it is a place where people come to learn.  We often think of research in isolation as this additional activity that might go on in universities. But it should permeate, and it is beginning to permeate very much so in Torrens, right throughout our teaching programs as well.  So building new knowledge and understanding the existing knowledge is an important part of universities and an important contribution that we make to society.

Research can be a thrilling journey.

AL:  When you start off in the process, you're often so overwhelmed with the complexity of methodology and the challenge and the daunting world, almost, of being able to get in to the research space that you tend to become mechanical and that's the risk of it.  But as you grow on and you see that research is this exciting world where you can create a deeper understanding of your own world, but support other people in their deeper understanding.  Then all of a sudden it becomes such an exciting journey that you never can be it out of it again.

This is Research that Matters.  I'm Clement Paligaru.  This series explores the work of researchers from Torrens University Australia.  We’ll take you behind the curtain to hear what drives their passion and the impact their work, has on all of us.  In this episode, we explore how our research identifies the new skills and capabilities for the future.

KL:  I suppose my real interest in research began when I was an undergraduate student studying architecture and in third year we had to do a research paper.  And through that project, I became probably entranced in my own little world about my particular thesis for that piece of work.  And that really set me on a path that I still am on today, which is about interdisciplinary research.  And it's my interest around bringing other disciplines and social science methodologies into architecture and construction and project management. 

Hi, my name is Kerry London and I'm Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research at Torrens University Australia. 

I think researchers are often focused on where their research goes and what impact it will have.  In some cases, we might forget, and we get caught up in a very academic and theoretical approach.  But I see more and more with my colleagues and the researchers at Torrens, in particular, the way that people begin the very design of research projects, thinking about who's going to use the research and what impact it will have on society or their industry partners or policy making, government, various people that might end up using the research.  I think Torrens is quite unique in that way, is that it's very much in the narrative of the university and the research that's conducted here, so it's uppermost in academics’ minds.

Professor London is an active and passionate researcher who believes research belongs outside of the ivory tower of academia.  She now leads the development and implementation of the Torrens University research strategy, so what ambition does she have for this role?

KL: My ultimate goal is to really raise the profile of Torrens research, both nationally and internationally.  And we have a great grounding in the last couple of years.  There's been fantastic work done, and I think we're at a good time right now, where we will go to the next level.  It's important that we focus on quality, so the research quality matters as well as the real world impact of our research.  So I think those two elements are very important. 

The other part is who do we connect with?  Who are our contemporaries, who are our friends when we are doing research?  So our partnerships are really important and our collaborative activities, so more and more the quality and the impact and our partnerships and how we are seen by the rest of the world.  And I find that the way that the different centre directors and the different researchers in those centres actually work together to understand each other's discipline and to actually conduct meaningful and authentic interdisciplinary research is quite impressive.

I think that collaborative partnerships that are being undertaken is something that really marks Torrens as unique.  We develop solutions for some of the challenges that we see.  So not only are we interested in high quality theoretical search that underpins our work, but we actually are very focused on how might this work in a particular community?  How might it work in a particular profession or work environment?  How does it affect an industry that we deal with?  It's the content around that, it's what gets produced, what are the outputs?  Because a lot of times a research study might finish at the end with some peer reviewed papers, some wonderful papers and some wonderful technical research reports, but what can we do that goes one step further?  What recommendations can we make for policy makers?  What guidelines, what tools can we produce and evaluate and assess and provide to particular industries or professions.  I think this is something that I see on a daily basis with the researchers at Torrens.

Torrens University Australia is home to four research centres and an integrated unit.  These centres probe a range of societal problems and challenges, including tackling issues around wellbeing and safety.

KL:  We were looking at a helmet that would be, you used to actually help Alzheimer's patients and sufferers, and it would be used in the home eventually.  So it was actually the research that sat behind that was the analysis and the design of the helmet.  And then it was working with industry partners to develop this new novel technology that would enable much more people to be able to be assessed and helped within their own homes, and also within aged care homes. 

There's another tool being developed around empathy.  How do we develop greater empathy in our aged care workers when they're working with our elderly in aged care homes?  I have my own research where I have worked with New South Wales State Government, the Centre for Work Health and Safety on developing guidelines for how to use digital tools to help work health and safety management on construction projects.

It starts really with the development of a very clear strategic research plan.  Then cascading through that is how does that work within each of the centres?  Those four centres have very different types of research and very different topics that are all explored, but they have a very similar approach to developing a three-year research plan.  And in that three-year research plan, they work hard with their members to be quite targeted and focused in what sort of research we're going to do and how we would deliver it.  It's very much how do those particular groups all interact together as well and collaborate.  And I think an important part is that the centres are very aligned to the verticals, that is the various faculties that do learning and teaching and research.

This means students can reap the benefits of a curriculum that's been designed for the world of work, but that's not all, there's something rather distinctive about the Torrens University Australia research ecosystem.

KL: The Torrens way would be very much underpinned by the interdisciplinary approach and the way that there is authentic and truly quite meaningful approaches to interdisciplinary research.  That focuses then on what is the solution and what is the right solution for whoever might use the research and how it might impact society or communities or the industry profession.  So that is probably something I think, marks the ecosystem at Torrens University.  And I don't think I've really experienced that at other universities in such a way that it permeated throughout the entire university and the DNA really, of the university. 

One of the things that we try to do is at the beginning of designing research studies, we talk about how do we design the study from really the get-go around who's going to use this work.  So that means bringing people from industry or from government departments right into the early phase of the research design so that we are not assuming how it would be used.  I think partners are often interested in working with Torrens because research has put that at the forefront of why they're doing their research.  How can we produce solutions for that particular organisation?  I think the co-design and co delivery is a really important part of how research is actually built from the ground up at Torrens.

There’s also an emerging area of non-traditional research at the university.  These are often research projects within the creative industries and they can sit across many different disciplines.  It’s a gradually growing field.

KL:  There are good examples of where design projects and exhibitions of design projects, whether they are physical buildings or whether they are interiors of buildings or other design products, how you might have traditionally designed something and you're exploring new frontiers around different ways of designing buildings or products.  And in many instances, the way that you communicate the non-traditional research output can be through exhibitions, but there are other ways through websites or podcasts, training, those sorts of things and even technical research reports that are produced for government departments are considered a non-traditional research output

When it comes to cementing its position within the national and international research communities, the university meticulously tracks its progress.  Impact and engagement matters most, as does reputation.

KL:  One of the things in relation to research excellence that we often think about is the era that the Excellence Research Australia initiative, so that's where research is evaluated every four to five years across Australia.  That's an important national or benchmarking exercise.  And the focus on producing high quality outputs that are peer reviewed internationally published in high quality journals or published by impressive research publishers, whether they're books or book chapters, are really important activities for us to always focus on and for us to always be thinking about.  And the other aspect is around, how are we perceived by the other universities, is often through the grants that we’re successful in.  So we have a really quite rigorous and robust process around trying to put our best foot forward in our grant applications.  All external research grants are actually taken through a very short but important evaluation and assessment on the relationship of the work that's being presented for an external grant to our Be Good vision and our Be Good philosophy.

So there is a national benchmarking exercise around impact and engagement as well.  How are our projects having impact and what engagement and knowledge transfer activities are actually being undertaken?  That takes a little bit of care and thought about, well, how do we actually get our message out there to people that might use our research?  Examples of impact can be changing behaviours, changing attitudes, introducing new tools to organisations being on national standards committees, those sorts of things, those sorts of impressive activities, where you have everlasting and sustainable change in the communities that our research would support. 

And then each year we monitor how we're tracking and how we're track on various metrics, whether it's publications in high quality outputs or successful grants, how do our PhD students fare?  Are they moving through their PhD?  What is the progression rate like?  So we have a very clear way of tracking our performance along the way.  We are aspiring to have three areas of research assessed at world best practise, which is a ranking of three.

Well, there's no doubting the university's future focus.  So once Professor London hangs up her research pencil, how would she like to see Torrens University Australia sit within the broader Australian research landscape?

KL:  The most important thing would be that Torrens is respected by the research community in Australia.  That would be really important for me when I hang out my research pencil.  I think that we are building a reputation and it takes many years to build a reputation, but I think we're already making a mark in particular areas.  To me, it's about the quality of the work that we do, but the impact not only in the research community, but also with the particular people that would use our research.  So whether that's in government or whether it's in not for profit organisations, whether it's across industries and professional associations, that people would go to Torrens as a place for certain research topics and research areas.

The university's research footprint is already growing and gaining momentum.  This appetite for creating new knowledge and finding practical solutions to problems is a passion that's shared across the entire institution, including the leadership team.

AL:  What I love about research is the fact that I can continuously get into new spaces that I don't know a thing about, and that I can start to grapple with it, and all of a sudden it starts to make sense to me.  And the moment that starts to happen, you feel that you're part of this world and you feel that you are ready to make a contribution.  Because the way in which I reflect on the world has changed and because my view on opportunity changed, and I become absolutely addicted to the idea of innovation, because I know it is possible.

Hi, I'm professor Alwyn Louw.  I'm the Vice-Chancellor of Torrens University. 

We must appreciate young and new and up and coming initiatives in the research space.  Because through that, we almost put pressure on the traditional approaches that is currently limiting scientific output and innovation.  And by allowing new initiatives to grow and supporting it, we will grow much faster and we will achieve so much more.  Research in essence, support the process of understanding the world around us better.  How does this world work?  How do we in the end fit into this context that we’re living in, how do we manage and improve our engagement with our environment?  So research sit at the heart of understanding, explaining, and based on this understanding and explaining, we develop knowledge and create information that we can share.  And through that, the broader knowledge base in society becomes accessible to more and more people to use it in the way in which they live their lives.

Using the university's collective skills to create positive and lasting change towards a better world, sounds great.  But how do you build a strong research culture?

AL:  In essence, you have to take a decision in terms of where you want to focus.  If you want to focus on blue skies research, or if you want to translate your research into real application.  In other words, working through to the point of impacting society.  We decided for the latter.  We accept that you always need to have the foundational knowledge and that we create, but we don't stop there.  So our research is focusing on outcomes that matters that will really have application and that people can use to improve the general wellbeing of society.

The first thing is to understand what's the purpose of research?  Why do we do research and link to that a very clear vision, strategy and making sure that based on that we have appropriate leadership across the institution.  We then built the capacity of our researchers around our strategy, and we make sure that we create a supportive environment for our researchers.  In other words, they must feel that they can depend on us to grow their own research capacity, to develop their output and through this, ultimately, we create an institutional impact and we become productive partners of society.

So then how is Torrens University specifically contributing to knowledge creation through research?

AL:  We decided on a very clear focus.  We have four research themes and these themes, firstly, focus on managing or interpreting and supporting societies in drastic change.  Here in Australia, we've seen the fires, we now see COVID, we see so many different things that need urgent attention, so we make a contribution in that space.  Secondly, health is such an important aspect across the world, and we are looking to contribute to the creation of health solutions, that's our second focus.  Let us look at the work that FIDO is doing, our research unit in the institution.  FIDO is focusing on explaining the social environment and specifically the health issues and wellbeing issues in the broader society.  And by making sure that we understand the trends in terms of the quality of life, the quality of the health of society, how social factors impact the wellbeing of people.

The outcome of that research becomes very useful for policy makers, for determining specific programs on national, as well as on community level and it enables people to identify risk areas that must be prevented.  It just opens the understanding of those areas.  The third focus is to support organisations and develop entities and people in the space that is ready to make an impact in society.  And in the fourth instance, our focus is on security and sustainability.  So we have these broad theme and we focus our resources and our energy into this space, make sure that our researchers work together in teams and they group, and they pool their expertise to enhance the impact. 

We take that research, we take the conceptual aspects and we take it into application therefore, or our research focus is to generate applied outcomes that are usable for people in industry, and the broader society, outcomes that can influence policy on government level.  The implication is that a researcher now becomes a partner in the process of developing solutions and not only sharing ideas.  All our research, all our grant applications that we put in, we test it against the principles of a good B Corp citizenship.  We make sure that our application of the knowledge translates into real benefit for society.

Torrens University may be one of the country's newest universities, but it's already gained momentum with its research output.  What's attracting industry partners and collaborators all over the world to work with the university’s researchers?

AL:  I think firstly, the depth of our expertise, for example, in the artificial intelligence space, we have research capacity that is leading in the world.  Secondly, the fact that we have an open and accommodating approach, we understand that the world consists of networks and we understand that the opportunity to impact society rests our on your ability to work in these networks.  So we create a welcoming environment for people to collaborate and to participate with us

At Torrens University Australia, not only does research matter, but researchers themselves matter.  This means the makeup of the research teams and their ability to collaborate is of utmost importance.

AL:  Our focus is on firstly retaining our senior and expert researchers, which we have a significant cohort of.  We have a strong group of early career researchers progressing and developing in this environment, and we have people just completing their PhDs in getting into this space.  So we got a broad spectrum of research capacity in the institution by extending that capacity through appointing adjunct people from industry with good academic and practise grounding and linking them with our academics.  We have a formidable team of researchers together that is visible through the publications that we have, through the number of Q1 journal publications that we have, and in the end, that improves the recognition of our research and of course, have a bigger impact in terms of the application opportunities.

Professor Louw, the university also puts a lot of emphasis on multidisciplinary research.  Why is it crucial to work across disciplines?

AL:  What is exciting here is that we are actually moving beyond multi-disciplinarity into interdisciplinarity now.  We’re bringing disciplines closer and integrating some of the different disciplinary perspectives and theoretical orientations and methodologies.  And the reason for that is very simple.  We’re moving into an era of super complexity, which means that the requirements that you have to be able to interpret that world and find solutions are changing.  So it's not possible to interpret these things from single disciplines anymore.  And it's also not possible to put disciplines next to each other and think that you're going to have then interpretations back into disciplines, but it's necessary to find a new conceptual base.  The process of research development must move into different levels of disciplinary integration and alignment and we are preparing our students and our researchers for that world.  And we already have 47 staff members from across the institution starting to work in different interdisciplinary teams and they are busy working on products and we now start to see some of those articles getting into publication. 

The solution into the future, into the super complex era sits in bringing all this disciplinary knowledge and this expertise into common space and into common processes.  And the only way to do that is that you must find those networks around specific areas that you get involved in.  And those people sit across the world, they sit across institutions and for the specific reason that we want to make sure that we get the best possible product and the most significant relevance into society.  We seek those people and we find those networks and we built those relationships and through the synergy, we’re creating better outputs and we create new networks towards future development.

Torrens University researchers do like to roll up their sleeves and work within real world settings.  What's the benefit of linking research to commercial realities and industry?

AL:  The traditional university, the ivory tower reality, where universities did research they thought may be important and they shared this in a very selective way then often into industry and society.  That whole environment became absolutely outdated.  The important principle here is that universities now become co-responsible.  They become partners in the process of societal development and growth.  And for that reason, we must find the partners also outside the university.  The value of the research being done in industry and funded by industry is often much bigger than what we can afford in universities.  So it'll be absolutely short-sighted to think that we stay in our own world with the resources we have, we must unlock those resources and in that team approach, we will get a new level of relevance, quality and a shorter route towards application implementation and impact.

The university’s ultimate aim is to lead projects with a social and economic benefit with the end goal to create a better world.  While it's made some huge strides already building research excellence takes time.

AL: It is important for us that our staff members publish in Q1 and Q2 journals.  In the last year, more than 50% of the journals were published in Q1 and Q2 journals.  So our researchers are really getting into the space of publishing in these high standing journals, developing a research culture, research capacity and research credibility takes time.  We’re a young institution, six, seven years in the life of a university.  If you get to Europe and you walk into university and you try to talk about your university, that's a hundred years old, they say, but our university is 600 years old. 

We are in a position where we get very good recognition already from the industry in terms of the output we do.  We see that from the research grants that we apply for and the feedback we receive, some of our researchers like specifically, in the AI field is world leading, and I'm talking top one and 2%.  I'm not talking about 20th or 30th.  We create information.  We feed it into the system and you see the policy product within the next 2, 3, 4 years.  It's not something that happens immediately.  I think what we must also understand is that the impact in the social environment takes time.  To make an impact today, and policy changes in the next two to three years and practise start to follow in the next 4, 5, 6 years.

In its short history, Torrens University Australia has made headway towards positive and lasting change, all of which is aimed at innovation.  So building on this reputation, what's driving the university research goals into the future?

AL:  Thought leadership products, those areas where we bring new information, new insights, and we open up new worlds and new vistas for people to understand things better.  And then of course, the continuous development of new initiatives and the ability to move into new areas that are of importance at a specific stage in history.

In the next episode of Research that Matters:

Aslihan Tece Bayrak: Imagine that you have just landed on a new planet.  And I would like to imagine everyone somewhat enjoys Star Trek, right?  I imagine that you are travelling and reaching to the frontier and you're trying to find a new kind of space or interact with new species.  As you landed on this planet, you have to roam around on the planet in your Rover in order to find new species and catalogue them.

Research that Matters was produced by Written & Recorded.  This is a Torrens University Australia podcast, and I'm Clement Paligaru.  To hear more search for Research that Matters on the Torrens University website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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