Universities Poised to Lead Ambitious Research Moonshots

Monash University

These research breakthroughs are so well known because of their successful translation and commercialisation. Australian researchers are making regular scientific breakthroughs, but their successful translation is the exception, not the norm. How do we change this?

The scale, severity and interconnected nature of today's wicked problems calls on universities to accelerate efforts to develop evidenced-based solutions and innovate in new ways.

While Australia needs to lift research and development expenditure as a percentage of GDP to even meet the OECD average, it's just as important to make sure that R&D funding is well spent. One thing is clear - business as usual approaches to R&D will no longer cut it.

So what can be done? One approach gaining attention is called mission-oriented innovation.

It draws inspiration from the Apollo moon landing of the 1960s. The moon mission had an audacious, high-risk, specific, and time-bound goal: to put a person on the moon and return them safely back to earth by the end of the decade.

The Apollo mission developed pioneering and experimental solutions across many scientific disciplines and sectors. It spurred technological advancements with far-reaching spillover effects beyond the moon landing itself: innovations in computing, materials sciences, nutrition, and telecommunications. It showed that it is not just the volume of R&D spending that is important, but also how it is spent that matters.

Mission-oriented, 'moonshot' research aims to find solutions to wicked social and environmental problems, with many scientific disciplines working in deep partnership with governments, communities and industry. It helps align R&D spending to maximise its impact.

There has been a resurgence in funding mission approaches over the past decade - like the US Cancer Moonshot announced by President Obama in 2016, Japan's Moonshot program, and the European Union's 95 billion Euro Horizon research program with five ambitious research missions.

America's universities are the frontrunners in applying mission-oriented thinking to how they organise their efforts for maximum impact. UCLA established the Depression Grand Challenge in 2015 with the ambitious 'moonshot' goal of halving the global burden of depression by 2050.

Similarly, in 2012 University California Berkeley established the Brain Initiative to uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

While there are some great local examples (the Monash-led World Mosquito Program has protected over 10 million lives so far) - Australian universities have been late to the game in robustly engaging with mission-oriented innovation approaches.

The Universities Accord report released earlier this year calls for a step-change in the level of ambition and collaboration across the higher-education research sector. It calls on universities to expand their engagement with research to solve "real world" problems.

Universities, characterised by inherent curiosity, pursuit of new knowledge, and with a unique capability to bring together diverse organisations around common moonshots are well positioned to do more of this.

While governments respond to electoral cycles and non-government organisations often focus on specific issues, universities can steward long-term visions, drawing from wide intellectual breadth, and have the academic freedom to explore uncharted territories.

The ball is in the court of universities. It's not easy however. Mission-oriented research demands more sophisticated ways of collaborating. It requires a higher risk appetite and expanding the range of research career pathways to support great ideas to flourish. It requires us to adopt more innovative approaches to external partnerships for funding, co-design, and delivery of solutions.

It's not about labelling every ambitious research question as a mission, though. Unchecked proliferation of university-led missions could further fragment and undermine our innovation system. We need to set up systems with clear goals and accountability systems and make sure universities specialise in what they do best and the challenges they are uniquely positioned to address.

But the benefits are clear: curing illness and disease, harnessing AI for good, addressing social polarisation, mitigating and adapting to climate change and reversing biodiversity loss calls for unprecedented levels of collaboration and innovation.

It is time for us to re-examine how Australian universities can work together to explore new models of collaboration that can lead to all the 'moonshot' solutions the world now desperately needs.

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