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Centre for Gene Research

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Centre for Gene Research Getting the Environment for Biomedical Research Right Mini-symposium
24 November 2000, Dr Brian Monk & Professor Antony Braithwaite

 

Executive Summary

The aim was to forge links between the researchers, the University and the City with a view to developing a centre of Biotechnological expertise in Dunedin. We believe this was a successful meeting.

 

Meeting Objectives

  • To promote Otago's Biomedical Research activity as an important asset for both the University and the wider community
  • To highlight the present concerns and future needs of Otago's Biomedical Researchers
  • To learn from the experience of successful participants in the Life Science revolution
  • To influence positively, strategic planning at Otago University
  • To foster linkages in the political arena and with the wider community

 

Projected Outcomes

  • Increased awareness of Biomedical Research at the University of Otago
  • Insights from other experiences that will suggest innovative strategies for the development of Otago's Bioscience infrastructure
  • Forging of links locally and nationally that will advance existing strengths at Otago
  • Formulation of a plan to promote research excellence at Otago

 

Report

The minisymposium attracted an audience of about 90 people that represented a wide cross-section of the academic community and the city. The audience included academics (primarily drawn from biomedical and science departments), researchers, research managers, a member of parliament, representatives of the city council and its business managers, as well as contributors to local biotechnology industries outside the University. The insights of conference participants, which included local views and experiences from three quite different models for research, were well received by an audience that was both entertained and informed.

 

Opening

The symposium was opened by Dr Graeme Fogelberg, Vice Chancellor, Otago University. His remarks indicated that he was very supportive of new initiatives to expand Biomedical Research at Otago, particularly in light of the Larkins Report and a possible shift away from strict EFTS funding.

 

Speakers

Professor Tony Reeve from the Cancer Genetics Laboratory spoke about the issues being faced in developing a better research base. He raised the (serious) issue of the difficulty of recruiting good staff, a point reiterated by all subsequent speakers, and the need for developing packages to attract bright young New Zealander's back after postdoctoral experience. He pointed out that salaries for both academic and technical staff are low and career paths for both groups are very poor.

Professor Reeve argued that departmentally based research is outmoded, inefficient and uncompetitive. If we are to develop a stronger research base in Otago, we need to establish a better, more competitive research environment and need to be aware of opportunities for commercial exploration. He also commented that there needs to be increased awareness of the value of research and that heavy teaching loads erode research capacity. An institute model, he argued, addresses many of these issues.

Professor John Mattick, Co-Director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience in Brisbane illustrated how an Institute/Centre of Excellence model can work on a University Campus. Beginning with $AUD400K in 1988, in part derived from University of Queensland departmental budgets (i.e. top slicing), it took about 10 years for his small institute to return $AUD8 million per annum from grants and other sources. In 2000/2001 the University of Queensland is building the new Institute for Molecular Bioscience in conjunction with CSIRO. Support from federal, state and local sources is providing $AUD110 million for the Institute.

For such a venture to happen he stressed the need for effective champions of the concept and co-operation. University departments need to recognise the value of research and the longer term returns it generates. This view then makes it possible for them to favourably consider making an initial financial contribution to an institute. In return, research staff in the institute, through a carefully managed system of joint-appointments, are expected to contribute up to 20% FTE to teaching in one or more departments. This has facilitated integration of the institute with the rest of the University and promoted new opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas. For example, Professor Mattick particularly noted how the genomics/bioinformatics requirements of the Institute had adjusted the focus of departments like mathematics and information science.

Appointment of the right people was, however, the key to success. Good people attract grants which in turn attract more good people. Establishment of basic research with people having excellent track records provides confidence for investment from the Government and the business sector. Support of high quality basic science was critical to establish the infrastructure (ideas and technology) for commercial development. All parties "investing" in such a research venture need to understand the value of appointing the right people and of knowledge. The presence of his Institute/Centre of excellence has produced wealth creating dividends in the form of training and enhanced opportunities for biotechnology start-ups (5 in the last two years). It has also created a scenario in which university departments linked to the Institute are now able to attract high calibre personnel. This was viewed as an especially important dividend.

Professor Mattick finally commented that with Otago University's already strong biotechnology/molecular biology base, a research venture here should have a high likelihood of success. He reminded us that Brisbane was very poorly regarded in these areas 12 years ago, when Mattick was given the mandate to found his (then) small Centre for Biotechnology.

Professor Dick Bellamy, Director, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland was also supportive of the Institute/ Centre of Excellence concept. However he tempered the enthusiasm of some speakers with his "reality checks". He reminded us that despite the benefits for research, the population of New Zealand is small and therefore the wealth base from which commercial and government investment derives, is very low by international standards - much lower than Australia, indeed lower than the state of Queensland. As a consequence, it will always mean that it is difficult to establish a strong enough infrastructure and the critical intellectual mass will be low. He did however, agree with other speakers that attracting the right people was to be the key if such a venture as a Research Institute was to succeed. Dick also commented that it needed strong institutional support at the highest level. In addition, he suggested that the offshore Kiwi diaspora had much to offer in terms of providing the contacts and guidance needed for an Institute/Centre of Excellence to flourish in Dunedin.

Dr Jim Watson, Head, Genesis Research and Development Corporation, was highly supportive of creating a research-focussed environment. He believes this to be the only way to do research and to attract significant investment from the business sector. His experience, however, is that it is much easier to obtain investment from business outside of the university environment. Jim noted that, within 6 weeks of leaving the Auckland Medical School, investment in his company had increased 3-fold. His perception seemed to be that the responsiveness of universities was not always conducive to business sector investment. Finding ways to overcome this important issue needs urgent consideration by universities.

Jim's impressions are that in the institute/corporate environment, research happens faster and that there is more freedom to achieve, but he again stressed the need to recruit the right people. He believes it is a "fabulous era of discovery" and that Otago could be well-placed to build a strong environment for innovation.

It is worth noting that with a total book value of nearly $200 million and with $63 million in the bank, Genesis Research and Development Corporation represents one of New Zealand's success stories.

Dr Ian Smith, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and International) reminded us of Otago's success in obtaining contestable grant funds. Otago has obtained a major proportion of HRC funds and other contestable funds over several years. He also reminded us that Otago is establishing the Centre for Innovation which is hoped will attract funds from the business sector (and has already done so) to develop translational research. He indicated that Otago University is developing strategies for capturing more research funds and that he is sympathetic to other ideas.

 

Roundtable

This was chaired by Professor Braithwaite and comprised Professor John Mattick, Dr Michael Murphy (Biochemistry), Dr Martin Kennedy (Pathology, CSM), Mr Malcolm Farry (Dunedin City Council), Dr Bill Adam (CEO, Healthcare Otago) and Dr Paul Reynolds (MoRST). The contributors were challenged to respond to the concept of a research institute from their various perspectives. All members of the round-table were highly supportive of the development of an Institute/Centre of Excellence in Dunedin. Of particular significance were Mr Farry's comments. He indicated that the City Council and Dunedin businesses would welcome discussions on how this might work and what financial commitments would be required. Dr Martin Kennedy noted that a focus on basic molecular based research in Dunedin would be synergistic with more specialised research developments that might be planned for Christchurch. Dr Reynolds commented that the development of a research focussed institute in Dunedin would fit well with the government's position on research and development, including supporting centres of excellence. Government is moving to a position where re-investment will be negotiated with providers. If Otago is to attract such investment, it is critical that Otago occupies a demonstrable position of strength in such negotiations.

 

Response

We believe that the minisymposium provided a timely venue for the sharing of views and experiences. It debated successfully how to do more than just moving the chairs on the Titanic. It reached across the University and into a receptive city. It reached the objectives that were set for it and it is now important to deliver some longer term practical outcomes.

There exists a strong consensus for the establishment of a Research Institute/Centre of Excellence in Dunedin that builds bridges across the University and with the city, and that is based on strengths in the molecular biosciences and a need to be competitive at the cutting edge of research. A message of "go out and do it" from the minisymposium speakers and participants was reiterated during informal discussions following the meeting. Support has been found at all levels among academic and research staff, including 3 key HODs.

 

The Future

Drs Monk and Braithwaite will develop a concept plan for such an Institute, primarily using the model described by Professor Mattick, but also integrating other ideas that seem most appropriate for Otago University. We propose setting up a cross-campus working party of 4-5 interested people in order to refine such a plan, with a view to delivering a substantial submission to the University by March 2001. During this process, discussions will also be held with the DCC and potential investors from the business community of Otago.

 

Centre for Gene Research
Centre for Gene Research
Centre for Gene Research

 

A Grassroots Organisation of Active Research Scientists
Last Updated: November 2001


Centre for Gene Research
Centre for Gene Research
Centre for Gene Research
Centre for Gene Research