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.
- 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
- 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
- Forging of links locally and nationally
that will advance existing strengths at Otago
- Formulation of a plan to promote research
excellence at Otago
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.