Conversation: Professor Jim McCluskey AO; Australian research leader
Professor James McCluskey is one of Australia’s foremost researchers and research leaders. He has been at the University of Melbourne for more than 20 years, becoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) in 2011 and continuing in the role until this year. He was also Provost for most of 2021.
Now, amongst other things, leading the development of the Australian Institute of Infectious Disease, we were very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Jim about the Australian research landscape and his own career.
Looking back on your time leading research at one of the world’s top universities, what have been the highlights?
One of the greatest highlights has been guiding the recruitment of outstanding researchers and academics. Whether they be established and bringing instant lustre to the university, or trajectory hires, those who are young or mid-career where you can see a spark and you take a gamble, and they flourish on your watch and in your institution.
The other has been being able to start some initiatives that have the potential to add value to society; bringing together the capacity of the university, often in an interdisciplinary way. We were able to do this in the areas of social equity, Indigenous knowledge, disability and most recently, biodiversity – creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing university-based research in Australia over the next decade?
It’s a global competition and while we are circumspect about rankings, people use them to make decisions. Particularly with the rise of China - every time a new Chinese university enters the top 100 another university leaves.
In terms of home-grown challenges, the big one is the funding model. So many costs of research are hidden under the bonnet, like ethics committees, libraries, laboratories and space and these are not captured in the model. So, for every dollar of project income, it can cost us between 60 and 90 cents extra to do the research and we get nowhere near this, so the perverse reality is the better you do the worse off you are. And this is a structural challenge for research.
And if you compare us to other countries, where are our competitive advantages when it comes to research?
I think across the board we are very strong on a global basis relative to our size – and we have a broad-based disciplinary capability. Particularly in medicine and biomedicine, we have some of the world’s leading researchers and research institutes. The basic science and social sciences are also very competitive. Some of the areas where we are not as strong are probably the tech-based industries, particularly in comparison to some of our near Asian neighbours.
If you reflect back to your career, looking back what advice would you give Jim McCluskey as an early career researcher? And tips for other young researchers today?
Well, the advice I would give others is certainly the advice I would have appreciated early on in my own career. I say know your limitations and be willing to collaborate with others. Being careful in choosing your collaborators – it is easy to get swept along with promises but look for a person you can trust and who complements you and your research. And even if you are not the sort of person who is driven by the desire to invent anything or translate your research, be alert to the opportunities. We now have enough support in the system that even if you are not the sort of person who wants to take your discovery and turn it into a widget, someone else might be able to do so and you can still be involved. And finally, be prepared to take risks in your career and be willing to move out your comfort zone. For example, don't get locked into doing your research in one particular way.
The expectations of the modern academic are huge and so I would say to young academics - be careful about what you do and don’t take on; choose carefully and protect your time.
You have had an amazing career as a researcher and research leader, but if your career had gone in another direction what might you have been doing?
That is pretty easy; I trained as a physician and rheumatologist, and I really wanted to do research. I went off and had a very basic research experience - discovery science working at the National Institutes of Health in the US - and I never really came back to clinical disease; I never cured anything. If I did it all again, maybe I would have thought harder about working on a major disease and making a difference that way. Having said that, I was really committed to discovery science and the belief that the answers to the toughest diseases we face will come from basic science. I made one choice and sometimes I wonder if I should have made the other!
About Professor James McCluskey, AO
Jim studied in Perth as a physician before embarking on a life of research into how genes control immunity, initially at the US National Institutes of Health and later at Monash University, Flinders University and the University of Melbourne. Leading the development of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, he has also served on the governing boards of multiple medical and other research institutes. He became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2018.
Rohan A. Carr