The Turnbull government is set to overhaul the way university research is funded by dramatically downgrading the importance of publishing articles in little-read academic journals.
Prime Minister Turnbull wants to end the “publish or perish” culture in which academics are pressured to focus on constant publishing rather than producing work with commercial and community benefit.
In 2013, Australia ranked last in the developed world on the proportion of businesses which collaborate with research institutions on innovation.
Under one proposal, the government would entirely scrap the use of research publications from the way it allocates $1 billion a year in block research grants and PhD research funding, sources said.
Instead, in its innovation statement next month, the government will put more emphasis on research “engagement” and “impact”. The aim is to encourage universities to work more closely with the private sector to explore how their research discoveries can be commercialised.
Publications in books, journals and conference papers currently determine how 10 per cent of the $678 million funding for PhD research is allocated. Fairfax Media understands a major review into research funding, led by former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Ian Watt, will recommend removing this criterion altogether.
The government is also considering scrapping the use of publications as a criterion for $353 million worth of research block grants.
The government’s innovation statement is due to be delivered in early December.
Incoming chief scientist Alan Finkel has spearheaded a campaign to transform the way Australia funds research so that engagement with industry is valued as much as research excellence, which is largely measured on citations in peer-reviewed publications.
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Under Dr Finkel’s proposal, the amount of revenue generated from industry and other users of research would be used to help determine how university research is funded.
“Researchers are too often forced to choose between research and commercial careers, rather than being able to nurture their discoveries and innovations to market successfully,” Dr Finkel, who is President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, said earlier this year
“We think it’s important that the Australian community and the Australian government receive a measurable return on investment in research beyond just the research itself.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week told a public forum: “Everyone I talk to thinks that the problem is that academics have got – their incentives are very much associated with publish or perish.”
Mr Turnbull noted Dr Finkel is “very strongly of the view that if we can change the incentives, both for academics and business, we can get some different outcomes”.
“We should try that, we will try that,” he said.
University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, by contrast, said changing incentives for universities would have a “trivial” impact on research outcomes.
“It can be done, but it doesn’t matter,” he said.