RE­FORM­ING FOR RE­SEARCH PUTS US WELL IN FRONT

Re­cent ACU ap­point­ments are not to boost scores, but are a nod to fu­ture net­works

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - GREG CRAVEN

There are some very chal­leng­ing sports in this world: al­li­ga­tor wrestling, wolver­ine danc­ing and prime min­is­ter­ing all come to mind.

But re­form­ing uni­ver­si­ties is in a class of its own. The most rea­son­able im­prove­ment in­evitably brings pre­dic­tions of the end of civil­i­sa­tion, self-in­ter­ested me­dia leaks and an­thrax-in­fected en­velopes to the vice-chan­cel­lor.

We are now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one of these up­ris­ings of the pro- foundly priv­i­leged at the Aus­tralian Catholic Univer­sity. Our crime has been to be­come a real re­search univer­sity.

That’s what uni­ver­si­ties do, apart from teach­ing: they re­search. A univer­sity with­out re­search is like a jet with­out an engine.

Prob­lem is, an­cient in­dus­trial mod­els in most Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties let peo­ple be paid for re­search whether they do it or not.

Stan­dard in­dus­try prac­tice is that aca­demics re­ceive an al­lo­ca­tion of 40 per cent of time — and salary — for re­search. If their last ac­tual pub­li­ca­tion was co-writ­ten with Moses, so be it.

But not at ACU, not now. Aca­demics get re­search work­load on the ba­sis of demon­strated per­for­mance. Noth­ing will come of noth­ing. This is no threat to real re­searchers. It is no threat to our great teach­ers, who can be pro­moted to full pro­fes­sor on teach­ing dis­tinc­tion alone.

But for the bloke ek­ing out cred­i­bil­ity on one ar­ti­cle pub­lished so long ago it was writ­ten in cu­nei­form, it’s cur­tains. The shrieks can be heard not only lo­cally, but in the outer cir­cles of Hell.

What makes it so much worse for these an­cient mariners is that their point­less re­search time has been re­al­lo­cated to gen­uine per­form­ers. And there are so many of them. Bright, young, early-ca­reer re­searchers. Stars at­tracted from other uni­ver­si­ties. Su­per­stars at­tracted from around the globe.

What to do? Well, best to claim that all this ad­di­tional tal­ent is use­less and un­pro­duc­tive, and bet­ter still that it is in some way rort­ing the sys­tem to boost “scores”. It isn’t true, but at least you’ll feel bet­ter.

This com­pre­hen­sively ex­plains re­cent at­tacks on ACU for “gam­ing” the re­search sys­tem by mak­ing frac­tional ap­point­ments of gen­uine in­ter­na­tional re­search giants. Jeal­ousy mates with cha­grin and births venom.

What ACU ac­tu­ally has been do­ing is iden­ti­fy­ing truly great re­searchers around the world in ar­eas of its own re­search fo­cus. These re­searchers like what they see at ACU and come on board, usu­ally as 40 per cent ap­point­ments.

These are not pa­per ap­point­ments de­signed to in­flate re­search scores. They are the cut­ting edge of the glob­alised re­search Aus­tralia has to mas­ter if it is to stay in the game. In the real mod­ern world, your key re­search part­ner does not have to be per­ma­nently in the of­fice next door.

These in­ter­na­tional re­search fel­lows work hard and bril­liantly. In the first place, they are cho­sen ruth­lessly for per­fect fit with the key pro­grams at ACU, and close col­lab­o­ra­tion with home­grown re­searchers.

They ac­tively lead and col­lab­o­rate in the most im­por­tant re­search pro­grams of the univer­sity. They work tire­lessly on re­search grant ap­pli­ca­tions with other ACU re­searchers.

They take part in ex­tended re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions, con­fer­ences and struc­tured re­search con­ver­sa­tions. Many of these hap­pen on ACU’s Rome cam­pus. That’s what you do, when you are a uniquely in­ter­na­tional re­search univer­sity

Crit­i­cally, these ap­point­ments mean that Aus­tralian re­searchers are con­stantly be­ing men­tored by the very best in the world, who other­wise would have no con­nec­tion with Aus­tralia.

And most im­por­tantly of all, they are part of per­ma­nent global re­search net­works that spread around the world, but which are grounded in and di­rected by an Aus­tralian univer­sity. This is not gam­ing, it is the fu­ture for Aus­tralian re­search.

The uni­ver­si­ties that choose — that strongly de­sire — to be parts of these net­works are house­hold names in the re­search world: Leu­ven, Notre Dame, City Univer­sity New York, Hum­boldt, Durham.

Some­times, the pro­grams work al­most too well for our part­ner in­sti­tu­tions. Their best and bright­est choose not just to col­lab­o­rate deeply with ACU, they de­cide to per­ma­nently co­habit.

So Bryan Turner from the City Univer­sity New York, the world’s most dis­tin­guished so­ci­ol­o­gist of re­li­gion, is now full-time at ACU. James Sal­lis, the great pub­lic health author­ity, has moved from the Univer­sity of San Diego to ACU. They will have plenty to talk about with ACU’s own Herb Marsh, an ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist of al­most in­ter­ga­lac­tic stand­ing, with one of the high­est ci­ta­tion rates across any dis­ci­pline in the en­tire world.

The out­come of all this is not ar­ti­fi­cially in­flated sta­tus but the sort of gen­uine re­search dis­tinc­tion pur­vey­ors of aca­demic envy can only dream about.

In 2015 ACU made the big­gest jump in Aus­tralian re­search rank­ings ever recorded. It re­ceived the high­est pos­si­ble rank­ings in all of pub­lic health, psy­chol­ogy, nurs­ing, and hu­man movement and sports sci­ence. It ranked equal first in Aus­tralia in re­li­gious stud­ies, in­clud­ing the­ol­ogy.

The very best thing about these as­ton­ish­ing “scores” — as real as a grand fi­nal score­board — is they were achieved by an Aus­tralian univer­sity that has at­tracted not only out­stand­ing lo­cal tal­ent, but ab­so­lute world-class re­searchers.

Wel­come to the re­search of the fu­ture.

Greg Craven is vice-chan­cel­lor of the Aus­tralian Catholic Univer­sity

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