The rewards and challenges of a research career

IMG_1849.JPGRecently I received my 15yr long service medal at Griffith University. I am a full time (mostly) researcher who returned to Griffith from the finance sector in the UK some years back. After a stint as a lecturer in the microelectronics engineering department I took up a research role working with the Australian Institute of Sport. It was the beginnings of my sports technology/ wearable technology career (not that we knew what to call it back then). Since that time its been a privilege to work with Australia’s and the worlds elite sporting bodies on a variety of projects often partnering with the neighbouring Queensland Academy of Sport. Its brought some significant research funding to the University, including the ones that “count” like the ARC, the opportunity to publish papers (google tells me my H index is quite respectable now) and patenting a few things along the way too. Helping give birth to the Catapult GPS technology and spining out a few other products and companies along the way too has assembled a nice collection of awards for my linkedin profile too ;). More recently forming SABEL Labs as a research and enterprise entity of the university have all been highlights,  and working with Jaybird on their excellent REIGN sports sensor was a great opportunity to see years of research translate to a mass market consumer product.
Its been a fun ride so far, though riding the uncertainty of over a dozen employment contracts along the way has often made Christmas a time to hope I’ve made Santa’s nice list, with a contract renewal under the tree. Its been helpful somewhat to pivot and think of SABEL as a startup entrepreneurial enterprise, adopt a more consultancy type mindset and approach rather than research lab, and a  bit of study with the Griffith Graduate Business School and Stanford Uni has certainly helped in this regard.
Whats happening in research land
Casting about the traps, surviving of soft money is a familiar story for researchers, with the privilege of tenure beyond the reach of mere mortals. Institutionally while universities are about research excellence, budgets are tied to teaching related activities, with their research budgets at the whim of political forces. Thus most research staff lead a bit of a hand to mouth existence, often ultimately slipping between the cracks of what is a largely tenure driven system.
With the current drop in research funding and changing funding models its a real challenge, especially as universities have been running leaner and leaner in recent years.  The way forward seems to lie in engaging with industry, often overseas based. Though meeting traditional KPI’s of publishing and supervising the next generation of PhD’s (who ‘enjoy’ longer tenure) is then a largely  an uncosted activity which industry is unlikely to see as being valuable to their bottom line.
Our new PM has put science and innovation on the agenda, and while its yet to really translate, heres hoping…
Further reading
Wider reading confirms the challenges are quite widespread.
A terrific review of the state of academia (somewhat dated but still about right)
The Conversation has some great articles on innovation
An article in the Australian on R&D funding model ‘broken’
The “thesis whisperer”, a commentary on research sums it up quite nicely in this open letter to our new PM
Finally heres a story of someone on 18yrs of research funding doing it tough at a G08 university.

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