An ambitious project like the Great to Eight Research Agenda needs to grapple with many tensions and potentially opposing issues. One that we’ve been pondering lately is how to leverage both the deep specialised knowledge of experts, and encourage collaboration and creative partnerships.
The recent review of the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classifications wrestled with the same topic, asking in its consultation how the ANZSRC could be revised to better classify interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. From their report:
“The Review found that there was no viable solution that could be applied to the classification to resolve or avoid this issue.”
For the purposes of research classification, allowing users to assign multiple codes to research data, or apportion research across multiple codes, was agreed by the consultees to work well enough most of the time. But is assigning value and priority to research questions in the development of a research agenda a different matter?
There’s some interesting evidence that unorthodox collaborations can unlock tremendous potential. In the 2019 book Range, by David Epstein, the author uses the example of Broadway musicals. He notes that the 1920s featured dozens of productions with famous and talented names, including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. Yet the same period saw an unusually high number of flops, up to 90% of new shows. For contrast, he looks at the current smash hit Hamilton, which blends the unlikely ingredients of classical Broadway, hip hop, and American biographical history. The atypical combination of typical forms invigorates the art form and unleashes creativity.
Sociologist Professor Brian Uzzi of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, says novel collaborations allow creators “to take ideas that are conventions in one area and bring them into a new area, where they’re suddenly seen as invention”. He describes human creativity as “an import/export business of ideas”.
Uzzi and his team analysed eighteen million papers from a range of disciplines to find out whether atypical combinations of knowledge made a difference. If a paper cited other areas of research that rarely appeared together, it was deemed to use an atypical knowledge combination. The papers that were most cited over the next ten years featured both conventional knowledge combinations and atypical combinations.
“The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations. Papers of this type were twice as likely to be highly cited works. Novel combinations of prior work are rare, yet teams are 37.7% more likely than solo authors to insert novel combinations into familiar knowledge domains.”1
Professor Luis A. Nunes Amaral, the co-Director of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, found that ecosystems that foster successful teams have similar characteristics. Individuals move easily between teams, cross organisational and disciplinary boundaries, and find new collaborators2.
So what does this mean for the ecosystem we hope to build with the Great to Eight research agenda? It means that if we want new and creative solutions for our most entrenched problems, we need to find a way of ensuring that deep subject matter expertise – the “conventional” knowledge – is both allowed and encouraged to cross-pollinate in atypical ways.
1Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact, Brian Uzzi, Satyam Mukherjee, Michael Stringer, Ben Jones, Science 25 Oct 2013 : 468-472
2Team Assembly Mechanisms Determine Collaboration Network Structure and Team Performance, Roger Guimera, Brian Uzzi, Jarret Spiro, Luis A Nunes Amaral, Science 29 Apr 2005 : 697-702
In March this year, 500 participants from health, community services, education, research, philanthropy, and practitioners from the early years sector attended the two day National Early Years Summit, convened by ARACY and our partners, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Goodstart Early Learning, Parent-Infant Research Institute, Children’s Healthcare Australasia and Families Australia. The Summit’s goals were to develop a shared vision and recommendations for the future through the development of a ‘blueprint’ of principles and priorities. The Blueprint, now version 2.0, represented the collective contribution of the 500 participants, agreeing on 9 key priorities and overarching principles to take forward.
Close on the heels of the Early Years Summit and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia Together convened a National Community Recovery Summit. The objective was to create an agenda for building long term prosperity and wellbeing in local communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and build a road map for how national-level reforms and local leadership can combine to leave a positive legacy from the trauma of the pandemic (Australia Together) . More than 450 people came together via video link to discuss the key topics of early childhood development; social and affordable housing; jobs, skills and enterprises; and engaging communities.
The most interesting aspect about both of these major events, which brought together some of the best minds in the business of child wellbeing, is that neither event identified “research” as a key priority.
Do we really feel that we already know everything we need to know?
At ARACY, we are fairly certain that none of us would claim we know everything we need to know about child wellbeing and how to foster it. That goes double for the rapidly evolving world of COVID-19 in which we now live. So why was research not further up the agenda?
There was certainly an appetite at the Early Years Summit to take action. People were hungry for the support and funding to test and implement or expand programs, interventions and ways of working, and there was no shortage of ideas to try.
Perhaps it comes down to definitions and (un)common understandings of what research means to each of us. In the Great to Eight Governance Committee alone we have had some robust discussions about what comprises “research”, when it becomes “development”, and how the two feed into each other, alongside implementation and evaluation, to build a better evidence base.
As we develop the Priority Setting Mechanism (PSM) that will be used to form the Great to Eight research agenda, the project team are using the definitions of “research” below, based on the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification Types of Activity categories (2020) for national consistency.
1. Strategic basic research
Strategic basic research is experimental and theoretical work undertaken to acquire new knowledge directed into specified broad areas in the expectation of practical discoveries. It provides the broad base of knowledge necessary for the solution of recognised practical problems.
2. Applied research
Applied research is original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific, practical aim or objective.
3. Experimental research
Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on knowledge gained from research and practical experience and producing additional knowledge, which is directed to producing new products or processes or to improving existing products or processes.
What do you think? What does research mean to you? And do these three categories cover everything you would want to see in the Great to Eight 10 year research agenda? Let us know using the Quickpoll.
Like everyone else, the Great to Eight project has been affected by the upheavals of Australia’s summer bushfire season and COVID-19. Work has continued, however, and we thank our Governance Committee for their continued support and enthusiasm for this project.
Our Chair Jay Weatherill has stepped aside to focus on his role as Chief Executive of the Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five initiative. We thank Jay for his hard work getting this project off the ground and we are delighted that he will remain a member of the Governance Committee.
We are pleased to introduce our new co-Chairs: Michael Hogan and Gillian Calvert.
Gillian Calvert has had an extensive career providing leadership in the human services sector across government and non-government roles. Ms Calvert served as the New South Wales Commissioner for Children and Young People from 1999-2009. In 2009 Ms Calvert was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia for her service to the community as a leading advocate in the protection of the rights and welfare of children and youth. Ms Calvert holds a Bachelor of Social Work, Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Business Administration. Ms Calvert is currently serving on the Board of Directors for Life Without Barriers.
Michael Hogan is the Director-General for the Queensland Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women. He has over 20 years’ experience in senior government roles in QLD, NSW and at a federal level. Mr Hogan has served on the Boards of the NSW Council of Social Service and the Consumers’ Health Forum of Australia, and was chair of the Community Services Review Council in New South Wales. Mr Hogan holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and a Bachelor of Laws.
With the support of our key funder, The Ian Potter Foundation, we have reviewed our timeframes for the Great to Eight project. We aim to have a draft Priority Setting Mechanism available for comment by the end of the year.
While we work on that behind the scenes, please keep bringing your ideas to the Ideas Wall and sharing your thoughts with us. We will be posting regularly and asking your views on key questions as the Priority Setting Mechanism develops, along with sharing the latest developments from related ARACY projects focused on children aged 0-8.
Thank you for joining us on our journey to a 10 year research agenda to support better outcomes for Australia’s children.