School of Physics, University of Sydney

Innovation and the Universities

A personal view of innovation and research in universities by Professor Dick Collins, Professor of Applied Physics and Head of the University's School of Physics.

This article first appeared in the University of Sydney Gazette, September 1997, p18.


Dick Collins As a schoolboy, I joined our debating club.  While I can't say that I particularly enjoyed the experience of debating, it served the intended purpose of overcoming my rather unbearable shyness.  Some would refer to it as a classic case of overcompensation.

One debate that sticks in my mind was entitled That the Redex trials were a successful innovation.  Those readers on the wrong side of 50 may remember the Redex trials, a series of around-Australia endurance car rallies which were remarkable for the unruly use of explosives by some of the participants and the general disregard for traffic regulations by almost all of them.

My preparation for the debate was made more difficult by the fact that I had no idea of the meaning of the word innovation.  My parents referred me to the dictionary, which said that innovation was the introduction of new ideas.  This did not enlighten me particularly. 

Nevertheless, I argued that these trials were not an innovation - no new ideas had been introduced into Australia because these rallies were a common feature of life in other parts of the world.  I have no recollection at all as to whether this was a winning argument.  I do remember, however, that the adjudicator described my argument as interesting.  Faint praise, perhaps?

After that rather inauspicious start, innovation has been a large part of my professional career.

An enormously broad process, innovation includes activities from the basic research which leads to the creation of new ideas, through experimental demonstration and development, to production engineering.  It also includes a host of related non-scientific and non-technological activities such as financing and marketing.

At the time of my graduation I had a strong desire to do something useful with the things I had learnt as an undergraduate.  I was one of only two people in the quite large 1960 Physics Honours class at this University who left the academic environment to work in other areas. 

In my 14 years in the electronics industry, I worked in research, ultimately managing a laboratory, as well as interacting with people in the production environment.  Since rejoining the University of Sydney in 1980, I have participated in research projects in several areas, including evacuated solar collectors and vacuum glazing, which have found their way into commercialisation at various levels.

In the 1960s and '70s, my colleagues within the universities and the Government laboratories simply did not want to know about research undertaken with a practical aim which they deemed in some sense second rate.  In an article in the late 1970s entitled Is applied physics academically respectable?, I argued, with some passion, that research undertaken for a practical aim can be as intellectually challenging as fundamental, curiosity-motivated research, and is often more difficult in the sense that it can be influenced to a much greater extent by external constraints.

The attitudes of my academic colleagues contrasted starkly to those which were developing in governments and funding authorities at the time, where increasing emphasis was placed on supporting research of the type I espoused.

Over the last decade or so I have found a much more widespread acceptance of applied research and innovation within the university environment, at least in the disciplines of physics and engineering.  This is reflected not only by what I detect as a warmer attitude to such work from my colleagues, but also by the fact that many more students are undertaking undergraduate and graduate research studies in this type of work. 

Even with these changes, though, I still find some lack of enthusiasm for applied work within the academic environment; in a few cases this even goes as far as fear and distrust.  Statements are still made that this is not what the universities should be about.

I argue that these activities are entirely appropriate in a university environment, alongside the more traditional curiosity-motivated research, provided that they are done with due understanding of, and sensitivity to, academic values and ideals.  I see many benefits to us from undertaking research of this nature. 

Firstly, innovative work involves sustained intellectual effort at the highest level.  The need for rigour and thoroughness is no less in work aimed at practical application than in fundamental science.

Secondly, innovation is a highly multi-disciplinary activity.  The luxury of being able to specialise in a small area, and to pursue such research in great depth, is seldom available to the innovator.

Thirdly, innovative activities involve interactions outside the university, giving rise to many opportunities and benefits for all the participants in the process.

Fourthly, successful innovation can result in large financial benefits.  At a time when universities are being entreated to find greater proportions of their support from outside, this can only be positive.  However, great care must be taken not to let the prospect of financial benefit get in the way of open communication between participants.

Fifthly, and perhaps of most satisfaction to me, I have found that work aimed at practical applications inevitably stimulates new developments in fundamental research.

In my research on vacuum glazing, for example, which has been unashamedly directed towards making a new type of window pane which is more thermally insulating, we have discovered new things about radiative heat transfer between surfaces, and about fracture of glass.  We have written fundamental papers for prestigious scientific journals and have solved problems that are many decades old.  This work has also formed significant parts of the theses of my students.

Innovation is not simply crass commercialisation.  It can and does involve a diverse range of activities, starting with fundamental science and ending in the generation of significant cash flow.  Innovation is enormously stimulating and exciting, but it is not suitable for one with monastic tendencies, nor for one who does not communicate effectively. 

Innovation can enrich our academic environment both intellectually, financially and politically.  When taken alongside fundamental research, innovation and applied research are entirely appropriate activities for the universities of today and tomorrow.

Last Modified 2 December 1997

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