At the end of 2015, Malcolm Turnbull and Wyatt Roy launched the government’s new National Innovation & Science Agenda, calling for greater collaboration between Australian scientists in academia and industry and encouraging university scientists to be more open to moving in and out of industry.
But new research has found that university researchers may already be set up to fail at achieving the aims of this ambitious new policy due to a vicious cycle plaguing academia.
Low job security, universities’ high expectations and poor training are cited as the reasons why significantly fewer researchers consider a job in industry when than in academia. This casts doubt on whether Turnbull’s “ideas boom” will be able to succeed in a country where academics are so focused on producing publications that they aren’t willing to take risks and make this ‘innovation’ thing happen with industry.
Despite the policy’s focus on the issue of poor intersectoral mobility of university researchers, few explorations have been conducted in Australia, and no theory has been developed to explain the overarching reasons for why academics don’t feel like they can transition to industry. This vicious cycle is attributed to 3 main factors:
1. Low academic job security
An increase of PhDs worldwide has left the academic job market flooded, and current positions highly competitive. Many European academics claim the resulting “competitive knowledge economy” leaves academics anxious about their jobs which won’t be there for them if they were to spend a few years in industry – and so are too scared to let go of a job in academia.
This isn’t good news for the Office of the Chief Scientist’s idea of secondments between academia and industry, which hinge on researchers gaining more work experience in a related field in industry.
2. Toxic culture surrounding academic success
There have been many studies detailing how universities measure the success of their departments and researchers – publications and their ratio to citations being the main offenders.
But what impact does this have upon researcher mobility? Analysing several international case studies from Denmark and Belgium, we analysed data suggesting that immobile researchers, that is researchers who remain in academia, produce significantly more publications than their collaborative peers.
In fact, researchers from prestigious universities are most likely to fall victims to this publication-driven culture, which isn’t good news for Australia’s research focused Group of Eight universities, who the Government is hoping will lead the “ideas boom”.
You’d like to think our universities were rewarding their best academics and getting them to teach others how to be good researchers. Instead, universities are rewarding academics that are ‘publication machines’ – and not those that collaborate or share their knowledge with industry – and rewarding them with promotions and further job security.
If it were any other job this probably wouldn’t be an issue. But in academia, where the job market is highly competitive, a promotion and increase in job security means you’re less likely to leave your job – resulting in the best researchers often being the ones who produce the most papers – thus having less time to spend in industry.
3. Poor doctoral training
We looked at a variety of statistics from the ABS, Office of the Chief Scientist, as well as international case studies in Flanders, Belgium – all showing that there’s an apparent “skill gap” or “mismatch” between what skills industry employers want, and what early career researchers think they have to offer.
Not only do employers see science researchers as having poor “behavioural skills”, but also lacking in “business and commercial skills” like project management. Looks like employers can’t get over that outdated stereotype of scientists just as PhD graduates are obsessed with the glory of being a renowned senior academic.
On top of this, many doctoral candidates simply don’t consider a career in industry a possibility – with Spanish and US studies finding that a career in industry was merely as second choice for most PhD candidates, despite being less optimistic about a career in academia.
Additionally, the longer they spend in academia, the more entrenched in these values researchers become and thus the less likely they are to ever end up in industry.
Simply put, PhDs train candidates for academia and only academia – jeopardising any chance they have at a career in industry.
What do we need to do now?
Whilst solving the issue of academic intersectoral mobility will require a multi-faceted approach, we propose that universities will have to do most of the heavy-lifting (with some help from the Government) to break the toxic culture behind how they treat their researchers.
We have pieced together international case studies to uncover a vicious cycle which sees researchers trapped in academia through a publication-production conveyor belt, and not willing to take the risks needed to create the innovation that Turnbull’s new policy is calling for.
It’s going to take a lot more than a new government, a smooth Prime Minister and a shiny new innovation policy to undo the strongly toxic culture surrounding our researchers in universities.