Australia is well poised to be a leading nation in terms of discovery, innovation, knowledge exchange and impact, writes University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Mike Calford.

We have a proud history of excellence, in both the basic sciences and in research translation, and our research effort across a breadth of disciplines has been a key driver of our national productivity.

The past week has sharpened the focus on the Australian research system, on our future and on the impact of our endeavours. We have seen the culmination of two significant processes, both of which will be critical to shaping the future of Australia’s research effort.

What can we, as a nation, aspire to in terms of changing the lives of Australians through research?

As a sector, we must be able to show that we can, and indeed have, spent wisely the public’s investment in research. We cannot expect continued or growing investment in our activities without demonstrating the returns. Whilst there are many ways to allude to the benefits of research, ultimately – if we are to convince the public and governments to continue their investment – these need to be expressed in dollars and productivity.

The Excellence in Innovation for Australia EIA trial, released last week, examined the impact of research undertaken in Australian universities. While universities have long used traditional academic performance measures – ranging from major international rankings to the well-regarded Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment – the EIA trial demonstrated that it is feasible to move beyond traditional academic performance measures and examine the tangible impact on society of university-conducted research.

Undertaken by 12 universities, including the University of Newcastle, the EIA trial evaluated more than 160 case studies across four broad clusters (defence, economic development, society, and environment) for research impact.

While some may doubt it is possible to demonstrate an economic return on university research for individual projects it is not difficult to demonstrate the overall impact. At Newcastle, one single case study demonstrates a return on investment equal to 50 years of our income from external research grants. The ‘Jameson Cell’, a mineral flotation device developed by our Laureate Professor Graeme Jameson, has been revolutionary in improving the separation of minerals. There are more than 300 cells operating in Australia alone. In economic terms, the Cell is estimated to add more than $4 billion per year to the value of Australia’s resources exports. This success stems from an investment in expertise applied to a real world problem and is matched by celebrated studies at other Australian universities, e.g. the Cochlear Implant, Resmed’s CPAP device, the benefits to pregnant women of a dietary supplement of folic acid and Gardasil.

The release by the Australian Research Committee (ARCom) of the much-anticipated 2012 National Research Investment Plan (NRIP) has been warmly welcomed by the sector and promises to be the cornerstone to consolidating our national research effort and strategic investment mechanisms in a cohesive national research system. It has reinforced that if, as a nation, we are to cement our position at the forefront of international research then we must continue to build our capacity for research and knowledge exchange and invest strategically in the structures and systems required to produce novel, transformational research outcomes. While the NRIP provides a valuable primer for our nation’s future research, its aims will only be fulfilled if embraced by government and business and if we, the higher education sector, validate our credentials and demonstrate the impact of our research beyond institutional and discipline boundaries. Adoption of an exercise akin to the EIA trial to demonstrate the impact of universities’ research is an essential next step.