In the minds of many academics pure science and applied research are worlds apart.
Yet an applied research centre last year produced a third of the university's publications in Nature and Science, all from industry co-funded projects, demonstrating that astute research project design can satisfy both academic and industry priorities.
The Centre for Exploration and Targeting (CET), promotes a philosophy that applied research and pure science are two sides of the same coin. CET research projects have achieved a high success rate in their ARC linkage bids and have also won a much-coveted ARC discovery grant (in 2008) - a grant always associated with pure science research. Outcomes of the ARC discovery grant are already being applied to relevant industry programs, bringing value back to applied projects and building on fundamental science.
ARC's visionary linkage program is fundamental to our success. The program allows us to design projects which are fully funded by industry to address their issues, but also to do that little bit extra that is traditionally too high-risk for industry to fund alone, yet holds the potential for a very high impact outcome.
In strategically designing research programs, the CET approaches research from an industry starting point. We start with the actual problem in the real world and work back to look at the fundamental science issue that we have to crack. This is a paradigm shift from the traditional approach of many academics who investigate fundamental processes and then seek the application.
Traditionally, as scientists we often don't know if our research is used and by the same token, people in industry have little access to evolving cutting edge science because they do not have the time, facilities or academic expertise.
Since mineral deposits are essentially ‘freaks of nature', in that they are anomalous expressions of much larger earth processes, if you want to understand them, you have to understand how the planet works. Every question that comes from industry has at its core a fundamental science question.
The high esteem in which CET is acknowledged among its industry and academic peers results from the world class excellence of its researchers coupled with its ability to work so effectively with industry. This is also reflected in its membership of more than 60 companies.
Walking the balance between industry confidentiality and academically publishable results has not been an issue for CET. the solution to the specific industry problem is the commercially sensitive aspect of the research, but the fundamental science solution generally is not.
The role of CET is to help create a competitive advantage, not destroy it. Similarly, partner companies have been sensitive to our need to publish. a balance can always be struck.
CET certainly satisfied the university's quest for academic acknowledgement and peer review, publishing three of UWA's nine Nature and Science papers for 2009 with fundamental outcomes from its research projects.
This effort ranked the university second in Australia for Nature and Science publications.
One CET publication noted the discovery of how ancient ore deposits hold the key to the earth's evolution as well as helping pinpoint concentrations of metals important for the state's economic development. The secular evolution of platinum was the subject of a second paper. The third publication detailed modelling of the nickel content of the ancient oceans.
CET's business works in two ways. Firstly we encourage academics to realise the value of their research to industry. Secondly we educate our industry partners on the real cost of research.
We have learnt to cost out the budget clearly and look for opportunities such as ARC grants, working with organisations like AMIRA international to link up the right projects and industry partners to support pure science as well as its application.
We identify the science that needs to be done, we connect it with industry and then build the funding model to suit the specific project. I think we have shown that you can unlock and fund tremendous research opportunities by knowing how to align these elements.
It's fair to say that the CET has changed the perception of academics towards the high impact of industry-focused research and the value proposition of fundamental research to industry.
Published in UWA News, 9 August 2010