Why researchers should engage with industry

Speaking at a recent industry engagement workshop convened by the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering, the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte urged academic researchers to be more proactive in their engagements with industry

Reflecting on his own career, Professor Durrant-Whyte spoke about how an industry focus underpinned his success as the leader of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics in the mid-90s to late 2000s. He noted that their high impact collaborations with industry enabled high-quality fundamental research papers.

“Collaboration is much, much easier than competition,” said Professor Durrant-Whyte. “Genuinely embrace your competitors and work with them on larger scale projects.”

Professor Durrant-Whyte believes researchers need to be more visible to industry, getting themselves out there, collaborating and engaging externally. He noted external engagement is particularly important when working on big defence projects or cooperative research centres.

A key takeaway from Professor Durrant-Whyte’s keynote address was the importance of thinking strategically and having a plan.

Researchers need to have a vision, set an aspirational goal, have a clear research focus and have clear and practical impact.

To do that they must build a team, develop collaborations, secure funding, show impact, have a clear value to industry and relevance to Australia, and be generous and inclusive.

Leverage cash contributions through a Linkage Project

A key theme that emerged from multiple speakers during the workshop was that collaborating with industry must be approached as a long-term partnership.

Successful industry collaborations require researchers doing background research on the sector and potential partners, identifying and developing a strategy on how they are going to approach them, and starting with small projects such as co-supervision of an honours student that will help build trust and deepen the relationship.

Through that process, the partner is more likely to want to keep on collaborating and may eventually want to partner on a multi-year, multi-million-dollar program of research.

Also speaking at the workshop was the university’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research – Enterprise and Engagement) Professor Julie Cairney, who singled out the ARC Linkage Projects scheme as a way to leverage cash contributions from an industry partner.

She also noted researchers working in the hydrogen, batteries, “green” and steel/aluminium areas should be aware of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) allocating $1.62 billion over the next 10 years to support research in emissions reduction technologies.

Consider defence and philanthropy funding

Business Development Manager (Defence), Richard Cislowski encouraged researchers to think about defence funding opportunities, highlighting that it is one of the only growing areas for research funding in Australia.

Richard noted that there is a plethora of defence funding opportunities, with the US as the best source which has clear alignment to Australian priorities. Most defence schemes do not require matched funding and there is scope for large multi-year and multi-million-dollar projects as defence funds projects all the way from research idea to capability.

He advised that it’s imperative to learn defence language if thinking of applying for defence funding. Researchers need to be specific and explicit about what they can deliver, and remember that they are very security conscious and have short timeframes.

Associate Director of Development within the Division of Alumni & Development, Mark Alcorn reminded workshop attendees of potential funding support from donors. He spoke about how researchers should look for opportunities to connect with potential donors at conferences or other industry events.

“Get to know people and what motivates them to give,” advised Mark. “Usually a life-changing event is the motivator for some people to want to donate generously.”

Guest post about the Faculty of Engineering External Engagement Workshop reproduced with permission from The University of Sydney.