The public value of research

Academics from across the world recently gathered at UNSW Sydney for the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific. This year’s theme was ‘Research for the public good’ and the increasing need for effective public engagement emerged as a major theme.

With sessions addressing how research knowledge created in universities and higher education excellence can be extended to benefit society, the Summit identified a number of challenges confronting universities throughout the region.

UNSW Vice-Chancellor Prof Ian Jacobs said that publicly funded research brings social and economic benefits for all. Strong returns on research investment were reported by Europe’s Science-Business Network that identified an average 20 per cent in 2017, compared with just 6.8 per cent for the past 10 years of the US stock market (S&P 500) and 3.1 per cent for 10-year euro area (19 countries) government bonds.

“A 2017 London Economics report on the UK’s Russell Group universities showed that their research generates £34.1 billion each year for the UK economy and a ninefold return on public investment,” Prof Jacobs said, adding that a 2018 London Economics analysis of the Group of Eight universities in Australia demonstrated a similarly impressive return on research of $24.5 billion (£13.6 billion) per annum, representing a 10-fold return.

Collaboration across sectors

University of Singapore’s Economics Dean Danny Quah urged the Asia Pacific region’s universities to collaborate more effectively to combat geopolitical suspicion between nations. He also promoted multidisciplinary research that brings the sciences and humanities together to overcome growing international rivalry that comes with technological advancements.

Dean of UNSW Science Prof Emma Johnson chaired an international panel on how research can achieve public good in the 21st century. Among issues raised were the need for researchers to engage with policy makers, the extent to which Governments should have a say in what research gets publicly funded and the pressure on academics to commercialise their work.


Hong Kong University President and Vice-Chancellor Prof Xiang Zhang advocated for the need to invest in both curiosity-driven and mission-driven research initaitives that can each have unexpected commercial applications.

Prof Zhang gave compelling examples of novel research outcomes including wrinkle-free shirts derived from space research, and how bird flight studies have informed energy use in aeronautics.

UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla discussed microfactories with broadcaster Sarah MacDonald, providing a case in point for how knowledge created in academic settings can add value to communities and provide useful local services that meet real needs.

Prof Sahajwalla’s innovative approach to microrecycling and scalable methods for extracting valuable materials from waste paves the way for what she describes as the establishment of small-scale economies of purpose.

Using plastics, glass, furniture, textiles and even coffee beans, Prof Sahajwalla’s team makes new products that people need like phone chargers and acoustic panels with sound absorption qualities that can help reduce noise pollution.

This knowledge can be used in local microfactories to extract glass, copper alloys and other valuable materials from household waste materials including clothes, mobile phones and even coffee grains.

“Shipping waste materials over long distances is no longer the answer. The approach we use in our UNSW e-waste microfactory not only creates new micro-economies but also reduces the need for landfill,” Prof Sahajwalla said.

Making innovations accessible

Australia’s Chief Scientist Prof Alan Finkel chaired a panel on energy solutions that considered issues including how to make renewable energy affordable and more accessible to low-income households and renters.

Pioneering photovoltaics researcher Scientia Prof Martin Green, who revolutionised the efficiency and costs of solar photovoltaics, explained why photovoltaic solar systems have become cheaper in recent years. This Australian-made technology is now the lowest cost option for bulk electricity supply.

Other sessions looked at key challenges in addressing non-communicable lifestyle diseases, Artificial Intelligence and the rise of quantum physics, with 2018 Australian of the Year Prof Michelle Simmons sharing her experiences of being 2018 Australian of the Year and heading up the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Quantum Computation and Communication Technology.

“Quantum physics is a highly experimental field but it is also highly collaborative as we researchers face similar issues,” she said.

Orginally from the UK, Prof Simmons said that Australians are very open and collaborative and that the funding system here rewards researchers that work across institutions both locally and internationally to accelerate research outcomes.

Sharing research success stories

While the case for maintaining strong research investment is clear to academics and most governments in the Asia Pacific region, many Summit speakers spoke about the low levels of public engagement with research and how this impacts on both public sector and private investment.

Queensland University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Prof Margaret Searle said that one of the biggest challenges facing academia is convincing the general public about the value of a university education.

Arizona State University’s Provost Mark Searle agreed, lamenting  poor efforts made by researchers in telling the broader community about the important contributions they make. “We do an excellent job, however, of telling ourselves about our strengths,” he said.

Prof Jacobs urged academics to make a stronger case for why research matters and to be proactive in sharing stories that emphasise the link between universities and the research that informs debates, supports our democracy and, ultimately, advances society.

“We have to make our communities care enough to champion our work and influence the government to care as well,” he said.

Prof Simmons said that communicating the strong return on public investement in research was important.

“It’s other people’s money we’re using, so we have to make sure we let them know what they’re doing with it.”

The Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific was held at UNSW Sydney from 19-21 February 2019. Find Summit Tweets at #ResearchEx and visit the Summit website for program details.