It cannot be disputed that Australian scientists are facing challenging times. Perhaps ‘challenging’ is an understatement. Australia is producing an ever-increasing number of scientific PhD students, yet government funding of the sciences is at a record low. EMCRs – early-to-mid-career researchers who are looking to take the leap from postdoctoral position to a permanent placement in academia/industry – are arguably the most affected.
Professor Carver, Director of the Research School of Chemistry, ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, says there is a ‘huge demand or need for trying to encourage EMCRs in the development of their careers … it’s a pretty tough time at the moment for anyone doing research, particularly people in those age brackets’. I doubt that any of us would disagree. Professor Carver has been selected as an Ambassador of the Science Next Collaborative (SNC). Launched in mid-May of this year, the SNC is an Australian-first industry initiative, led by Sigma Aldrich, that aims to better enable Australian scientists to successfully translate their research through to commercialisation.
The initiative will focus on the challenges faced by EMCRs, particularly the transition from basic and promising research discovery to translational research and its commercialisation.
‘A thorough examination of the Australian scientific research sector uncovered that many researchers are struggling to achieve the final steps in their research continuum: successful commercialisation’, that is, according to Ms Reich Webber-Montenegro, Director – Marketing, Inside Sales and Shared Services, Sigma Aldrich Oceania. Ms Webber-Montenegro identifies the issue as a gap in the knowledge and know-how of EMCRs as opposed to their more senior colleagues, and that this is a worthy area for Sigma Aldrich to focus on. Ms Webber-Montenegro considers that the commercial challenges faced by EMCRs ‘may discourage them from pursuing meaningful and ongoing scientific endeavours … If this risk becomes a reality, Australia may see a huge dip in the innovation ecosystem and associated returns generated by a dynamic research industry.’
Associate Professor Derek Richard, Director of Research, School of Biomedical Sciences, Queensland University of Technology, and also an SNC Ambassador, has stated ‘it’s usually difficult for young researchers to take their discoveries through to commercialisation, possibly due to a lack of experience in intellectual property protection, market research, lodging patents and gaining working capital, which are all fundamentals in the commercialisation of research.’
The SNC is led by Ms Webber-Montenegro, who is passionate about the program and what it can potentially offer to EMCRs. Sigma Aldrich has recruited seven key scientists across Australia and together they constitute the SNC ambassadors, also known as the ‘think tank’. Sigma Aldrich became familiar with each of the ambassadors through their dealings with the company, and subsequently approached them for their expertise.
Key to selecting the ambassadors was that they must be influential opinion leaders in their field, be at a point in their career where they can lay claim to having successfully commercialised research, and, importantly, now be willing to give back to the field and mentor the next generation of Australian scientists. Further, it was essential to Sigma Aldrich that the ambassadors come from a good representation of Australian research institutions, in both the chemical and biological fields.
From my own investigation, it appears that the SNC Ambassadors have vastly varied commercialisation track records. Professor Carver considers that each of the SNC Ambassadors offer different areas of expertise. In Professor Carver’s instance, while his commercialisation experience may or may not be as strong as other Ambassadors, through his leadership roles at both the University of Adelaide and Australian National University, he has mentored EMCRs, encouraging them to further their careers in research. His experience in mentoring EMCRs is a strength that he will be bringing to the SNC.
There is often a direct conflict between commercialising and publishing research, and this is a problem. Research grants are heavily dependent on the number and quality of publications produced, yet commercialising research often requires the information to remain out of the public domain. When I spoke with Professor Carver about this, I was reassured to learn that the SNC Ambassadors had discussed this competing interest at length, and that the content of the forums will reflect this.
Professor Carver considers that ‘academics are geared to outputs in terms of research publications in prestigious journals’, and consequently, ‘academics are routinely measured in this way’. He states there is ‘little room, in many ways, for people who have a different approach’. Quite simply, commercialisation output does not fit the standard model that we currently have in place, and this will need to change.
The initiative will materialise as a series of forums held in Brisbane on 26 August, Sydney on 3 September, and Melbourne on 8 September 2015. There is no cost to attend the forum, though there will be no financial support available for those who do not reside in these key cities. The Ambassadors will present their commercialisation experience, guiding EMCRs through the process. A session on intellectual property and its relevance to EMCRs is also on the agenda. At this stage, the forums are not limited to particular EMCRs, and are not exclusive to particular institutions.
The SNC online ‘hub’ (sciencenextcollaborative.com) includes information about commercialising research as relevant to EMCRs and will be expanded to include a variety of educational resources. Forum dates are advertised at the hub and through major institutions. The SNC intends to have the forums posted as videos online, with the opportunity to stream the sessions in real time for those who cannot attend.
The first of the objectives to be met by the SNC Ambassadors is the publication of a positioning paper, which is available via the SNC hub. The paper captures the current situation faced by EMCRs, key challenges, and ways to better enable scientists to secure economic returns for their research.
The feedback received from EMCRs along the way will be used to direct future SNC efforts. Professor Carver considers it a dynamic process in which the program will continue to evolve to meet EMCR needs.
What is the value of the SNC to an EMCR? First and foremost, an EMCR’s commercialisation knowledge will benefit from participating in the SNC. Second, so will their resumé. Would an employer value an EMCR who has participated in the SNC? Absolutely, according to Professor Carver, who is well versed in hiring for academic positions. He states that employers are ‘looking for distinguishing characteristics … It’s not just about the ability to do research; it’s about the ability to interact, it’s about the ability to have a variety of skills … this initiative would be another aspect to that.’
What’s in it for Sigma Aldrich? The answer is ‘stakeholder engagement’. This is highly valued by Sigma Aldrich, and is the ‘main goal’ in terms of measurable return; Sigma Aldrich wants to engage with key leaders in industry and academia, as well as up-and-coming EMCRs. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe this response. Australian science is a relatively small community where word spreads quickly. Altruistic acts do not go unnoticed, and the initiative will surely fair favourably for Sigma Aldrich. We should be encouraged to see an industry-led initiative, such as the SNC, aim to directly address the issues faced by Australian scientific researchers.
Dr Brittany Howard MRACI completed her PhD in medicinal chemistry at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences before undertaking a postdoctoral position with the National Institutes of Health (US), and has since commenced as a trainee attorney with Watermark Patent and Trade Marks Attorneys.