Friday, 31 October 2014

TRUE Research Impact of Singapore Universities

Going Beyond Bogus World Universities Rankings Criteria

This Article broadens the perspective of University research by suggesting a family of measures for research excellence based on the impact of the knowledge created by Singapore University Professors in NTU and NUS.

Over the past decade, our Top Universities have been too obsessed with meeting the bogus world Universities ranking standards of dubious excellence and specifying that the only measure for research achievement is the number of research publications.

The bogus World Universities Ranking standards require that “Research Excellence” be (spuriously) measured ONLY by “citation”, which is how often a Research Paper is quoted by other researchers.

Our Top Universities NUS and NTU should begin to re-think the dubious constructs of “research excellence” and evaluate the quality, not the quantity of publications, as well as teaching and other contributions to knowledge, and more importantly, the impact of such expert knowledge on communities, businesses, societies and nations.

True research excellence is the product of passion and genuine scientific investigative efforts directed at purposeful outcomes in the form of “discoveries that will benefit Singaporeans and humankind globally” (Dr Tony Tan, 29 Jul 2006).

The “Research Impact” of our Universities refers to  the knowledge impact that the Professors have created.

University research is a powerful stimulus for economic development, leading to measurable increases both in GDP and employment.   University research has the potential to produce breakthrough advances that can fundamentally alter our economic growth and quality of life. And although not all research leads to such world-changing results, it does produce a steady stream of new ideas and technologies. These, in turn, lead to innovation and continuous improvements in productivity and quality of life. 

University research also has an economic impact by equipping students with the ability to generate new ideas. Companies will benefit by hiring graduates with knowledge and research skills.   University graduates help firms become more efficient and productive, and help them to introduce new products and processes.

Public Research Funding could only be justified by its impact on a continuum of clearly defined outcomes.   

Currently in NTU, for example, research impact is only measured by the number of journal papers produced by funded activities conducted by professors, research officers and project officers.  Innovations, patents, venturing, licensing and high-level consulting are not regarded as central in the University research effort.

In a Purge of Singaporean Professors over 2007-2010, a vast majority of NTU Professors responsible for more than 20 spin-off companies based on innovations developed from research with their students were dismissed. Their research prowess, innovations and entrepreneurial achievements were summarily dismissed as irrelevant and immaterial

Case-in-Point.  An NTU Professor (and inventor and entrepreneur) was a victim of the Purge, even after his ground-breaking research proposal won part of a S$10 million research grant for his research proposal under the pioneering National Research Foundation (NRF) Competitive Research Programme (CRP) Scheme. He had led his Team of 7 PhD Professors and Researchers to compete with 124 other teams from NTU and NUS, and was selected by an international panel of scientists, academics and industry experts on the basis of the outstanding merits in the research idea as well as in the credentials of himself and his research team.

Each CRP project is expected to birth an entire industry that would add sustainable capacity and capability to Singapore’s industrial landscape.  In the words of Dr Tony Tan, then NRF Chairman [currently Singapore President], the winning Project would blaze the path of “new research ideas that Singapore can cash in on”.

“Serious and Impactful Research” was also defined by Dr Tony Tan as “the harnessing and capturing of value” (Dr Tony Tan, 29 Mar 2007). 

As the intended result of narrowly restricted research excellence definition, the tremendous amount of publications (2,500+) by NTU professors from their research activities is believed to exceed even the publication output per capita professor in such well-known universities like MIT and Harvard.   

NTU receives little research funding from businesses and non-government organizations. The continual use of public funds in Singapore university research for the sole purpose of producing journal papers just to enhance the resume of its Professors cannot be sustained for obvious reasons.   Clear demonstration of the economic and public impact emanating from university research is needed to justify further public investments in university research activities.   

The diagram below, ‘borrowed’ from a study on the impact of university research, shows the main expected outputs from a university research system that goes beyond the number of journal paper publications.   
C. Langford (2002), "Measuring the Impact of Research on Innovation", in J.D. Holbrook and D. Wolfe, Knowledge, Clusters and Regional Innovation, McGill-Queens Press, Montreal : 113-132

The significant outputs of a University Research System leading to Ultimate Impact would include the following:

(1)   Contract Research
Contract research and collaborative projects are a significant evidence of research excellence.   They also promote direct communication between researchers in universities and researchers in government and industry sectors. The extent of knowledge exchange (both ways) is sensitively dependent upon the nature of the relationship. Longer-term relationships and ones of a program rather than short project character have greater impact because they allow for development of means of translation between the distinct milieus. Thus, long term activities including industrial research chairs and research consortia are usually the most productive and have the best impact.

(2)   Consulting
High-level consultancy usually has significant impact on policy formulation in both the private and public sectors.   The results of consulting could also lead to job creation, especially when it is associated with the commercialization of innovations.

(3)   Patents, Spin-off and Technology Transfer
These refer to the formation of a new enterprise, or licensing to an established firm, based on specific outputs of a research program such as a patentable technology or a focused technology package.   Some studies suggest that this is a factor comparable to the economic impact of consulting and of contract or collaborative research

It is frequently argued that few patents by themselves could be developed to become fully commercialisable in a feasible manner.   This is however an excuse for the lack of practical research impact.   Without encouraging and making patenting an important outcome of University research, how can any University convince the government, business organizations and the community that her professors are “excellent” researchers en route to “world-class” discoveries? 

Out of 1,000 patents, perhaps only 2 or 3 would reach successful commercialization stage.    However, these 2 or 3 could have built on many hundred others before them.   Universities need to encourage the goal of patents as a key output for university research.   Universities should strive to accumulate a store of patents to the critical mass necessary for truly ‘innovative’ research which, in turn, would produces products, processes and systems of value to people and society.

(4)   Policy Research and Analysis
A major impact of research done in universities is felt in policy analysis and formation in both public and private organizations.  Professors should participate in external policy formation.  Policy advice usually has frequently innovative outcomes.

(5)   Venturing
Research as “the creation of new knowledge” should also lead to the creation of new commercial, as well as not for profit, ventures by university professors. And sometimes together with their students – MIT is a great role model for this. These ventures usually emerge from an opportunity arising out of a professor’s, or some professors’, accumulated professional and research experience rather than from one particular discovery or technology package.

The value of a great Researcher is more than just the value of the sum total of his or her journal papers. It is also more than the measure of his or her store of expert knowledge. The “public” value of great Research lies in the impact created in the “use” of expert research knowledge and findings for the benefit of the University, students, the community, industry, the nation and other countries.

Popular facts mentioned that Albert Einstein only published 3 papers. Many NTU (and NUS) professors, like their counterparts elsewhere, actually publish more journal papers than Nobel Prize potentials and winners!  

The evidence of patents and commercialisable knowledge products is sufficient to establish the beginning of research impact. Consistent professional consulting assignments with credible national and international organizations or businesses known for their high quality professional standards are also sufficient evidence of impact.

Clearly, academic staff in any public-funded university should not spend 70% to 80% of their time, which is paid for by public funds, to produce journal papers simply for improvements to their resume in preparation for their next job in another University.

The tremendous amount of publications by NTU professors (2,500+) every year must be validated by more concrete evidence of their impact on businesses and society.   There should be ample proof that the supposedly “new” knowledge contained in these journal and conference papers is in fact of some or significance public value.

Not everyone who is consulted can be said to possess definitive expert knowledge of great value.   However, those who claim to be “the man in the field” or professed to be an “authority” that have specialized expert knowledge should also be consulted professionally by those for whom such knowledge is deemed relevant, important and critical. 

Professional consulting validates the relevancy and currency of expert or specialised knowledge, and confirms some degree of significant public value in otherwise “useless” research and knowledge.

Commissioned in 1997 to conduct an impact study, BankBoston reported that the graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have, since its founding in 1862, created 4,000 firms which, in 1994 alone, employed at least 1.1 million people and generated $232 billion of world sales.  The combined revenues produced by “MIT-related” companies would make them, when taken together, the 24th largest economy in the world.

The MIT Report is an example illustrating the contribution of Universities to their respective dynamic economy.   The development of business enterprises is one concrete measure of the impact of the University and its professors through their students.

The multi-dimensional and multi-faceted performance of a professor can only be measured by the extent to which he/she realized the “public value” of his/her specialized expert knowledge.

Likewise, the “IMPACT value” of a University’s research achievements should be evaluated through the objective evidence of journal papers, patents, spin-offs, contract research, consulting, policy formulation and venture creation.   

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