Conversation: Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik, DVC, Research and Innovation, QUT
Professor Barner-Kowollik is an ARC Laureate Fellow and distinguished international researcher in the area of polymer chemistry. Having led global research teams at three universities in Australia and Germany, he has recently taken up the role of Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Given his on-going research career and current role, Professor Barner-Kowollik is uniquely placed to comment on the current state of the Australian research landscape.
You have had a stellar research career both in Australia and overseas. How would you describe the health of the Australian research sector?
Australia has some of the most innovative and accomplished researchers in the world at all career stages, delivering real world outcomes. However, competing with comparable countries is challenging, given the long-term underinvestment in research and innovation. To remain competitive and establish an economy that is underpinned by real value generation in high end manufacturing, Australia should be aiming for 2.5% of GDP research investment (China 2.1%, US 2.8%, Japan 3.2%, Germany 3.0%) – we are currently no higher than 1.8%. I believe we have excellent mechanisms to foster research in our country, yet we need to be bolder in our investment decisions in the research space.
I would also submit that there is not an adequate firewall between political decision making and research funding – there is significant opportunity for governmental interference. We are not at world best practice if we do not isolate all our funding bodies from government short-term decision making. The final decision as to which research is funded must rest with the research community.
What do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing University based research in Australia?
Clearly, over regulation of the sector. In Australia, universities have become business-like to their detriment and the detriment of the country’s well-being, which leads to short-term focus. Universities are not businesses, they must be allowed to be universities, where the fusion of research and teaching allows for innovative outcomes.
In my experience, innovation cannot be dictated in a top-to-bottom approach; researchers must be given freedom, leading to remarkable outcomes. Countries that have followed such an approach are doing well in the innovation space.
Your research certainly has a global profile. As you look around the world, which countries impress you with their integration of research activities into the rest of the economy?
Perhaps I am biased, yet I see great strengths in the German system. So much of the country and culture values and appreciates deep academic enquiry and fundamental research. There is an understanding in government and business that funding fundamental research with a long-term horizon is absolutely essential to keeping the economy competitive. If corporations are encouraged to develop close relationships with universities, the national competitiveness increases.
As someone who has reached the peak of research excellence, what advice would you give a PhD student or postdoc as they embark on a research career?
I would say to any young student or researcher, pick a field that excites you and that you can get passionate about as then you will excel. Choose mentors who are generous sponsors of young researchers and a research group or institution that has a very positive culture. With these three elements you are much more likely to find success and fulfilment.
Scientific research has been your whole life. But if you had taken a different path, what might you be doing now?
I would definitely have been an historian; I am particularly interested the industrial revolution. Indeed it wasn't until the day of enrolment that I chose chemistry over history. I get excited by exploring the complexity of human behaviour and how it leads to change, providing valuable lessons from the past.
About Professor Barner-Kowollik
Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow and Professor of Materials Science in QUT’s Faculty of Science and Engineering was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research and Innovation) at the Queensland University of Technology in 2019.
Professor Barner-Kowollik is an internationally renowned chemist focusing on complex polymer reactions and harnessing the power of light to control and program the shape of materials. He established the university’s Soft Matter Materials laboratory, which is recognised as one of the world’s premier macromolecular laboratories. He is Editor in Chief of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s prestigious journal Polymer Chemistry.
Rohan A. Carr