By DAVID MYTON
Tanya Monro is something of a regular at the Rob Roy Hotel, a popular watering hole in Adelaide’s CBD. But she’s not there for the grog. Rather, she can be found talking with her customary passion, answering questions about subjects such as string theory and dark energy at the tavern’s popular Science in the Pub event.
Monro, the University of South Australia Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow, is an eager evangelist for all things science and enjoys the to-and-fro of discussion.
“I’ve learned that by having conversations with intelligent bystanders, it often makes me think along different paths than if you’re just stuck in that narrow disciplinary mindset,” says Monro, a prolific and award-winning physicist in the area of photonics, and one of Australia’s most outstanding scientists.
The passion to proselytise comes because she believes science is not really well understood in Australia. Although there are many excellent science communicators, often their messages get little cut-through to the broader public.
“We need scientists to go into a broader range of areas,” she says. “I’d love to see more go into politics, industry and government, and proudly wave the flag that they know how to make decisions based on evidence and data and to have a constructive debate.”
From modest beginnings in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown, and burning with a passion for maths and science, Monro won a place at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1998 with a doctorate in physics.
A Royal Society University Research Fellowship saw her next at the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton in the UK, from where she moved to the University of Adelaide in 2005 to become the inaugural Director of the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing and Director for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics.
She took up the UniSA DVCR role in 2014, but retains links with Adelaide as an adjunct professor in physics.
Senior leader and an active scientist
Despite the demands of her senior role Monro still manages to make time to be a working scientist. In 2016 she published 27 journal articles – a record for her – and managed six PhD completions.
“I don’t know that this year will be quite as good,” she says.
What helps is that the time she previously would have spent writing grant applications and seeking lab funding is now done by others “who stepped up into my leadership roles”.
“Research for me now is just sheer joy because I get to sit down with students and postdocs, look at their data, trouble shoot, problem solve, connect the dots, connect people, connect with industry, and engage in papers and the like.
“The time I used to spend putting together big grant applications and the like I now spend for the university in terms of growing overall research performance and culture.
“To be frank, you have to stay current and active because if you don’t understand the pressures facing researchers, if you don’t understand the issues with the systems – the funding and the like – it’s hard for you to help them.”
Becoming a DVCR was “absolutely never a goal”. However, she discovered early on in her career a desire to “build capability, capacity and teams”.
“I was only seven or eight months into my postdoc period when I stopped being the person doing everything by themselves in the lab. I was getting in funds, and building teams. Then I learnt that I can split my time – if you weight it towards building relationships you get a lot more done. You get a lot further faster.”
As she grew in her role as a research institute director she began to understand how to develop the best research culture – “I could see what factors from the higher level of the university helped or hindered it”.
“I thought I could either stay at that level knowing what was in my ability to shape and what wasn’t because of the hierarchy, or I could step up and try to see if I could do a better job of establishing the settings in which the best people thrive.”
Surveying the research and innovation landscape
Monro’s remit incorporates research and innovation, two categories she says are intimately connected.
“It’s about recognising that universities are a breeding ground for new ideas and for trying to help people to understand that those ideas can turn into impact.”
UniSA’s research and innovation efforts – its “pathway to impact” – involve working closely with outside partners so that knowledge creation and application are intimately combined.
She realised several years ago that universities had been fearful in their innovation remits of “losing out on a share of the next big thing – what happens if the university from which the next Google comes has not got a good equity stake and can’t benefit financially long term into the future?
“I came to see that, as a result of that kind of positioning, many universities were creating cultures where if staff or students developed research that became hugely successful, they often felt it was despite, not because of, the university environment.
“The innovation side of my portfolio is about creating environments where people who are entrepreneurial, or who are really driven by a desire to see things translated into real life, can learn and fail and try again.”
The bifurcation of research as fundamental and applied is “a false paradigm”.
“We need a spectrum of research activity that allows people to bring together really fundamental curiosity-driven research alongside the applied because the two fertilise each other – sometimes pure becomes applied, and vice versa.”
She cites her experience in photonics as an example: in 2005 she and her Adelaide team were tasked with developing optical fibres that could detect corrosion in aircraft – “which doesn’t get more applied”.
“But that led to a pathway which created some new concepts that now are being used to ask fundamentally new questions in embryology – and that doesn’t get more fundamental.
“This sense that applied or end-user engaged research is something for those who don’t make the cut in competitive research has to go the way of the dinosaurs.”
The new research engagement and impact system
She says the pilot has revealed that the assessment helps researchers to “create a new language”.
“It helps them get more sophisticated in asking prospective partners about their needs, and it gets them more out there and more integrated – so I see that as a huge benefit. But I don’t see it as necessarily being tied to a shift to doing research that’s one to two or three years out from application.”
However, she has some reservations on using case studies for assessing impact.
“I think they’re excellent but I believe they should be illustrative rather than determinative,” she says.
She gives as an example a scenario in which two universities may be conducting research in the same field and each submits one case study. If one of the universities is very much larger than the other, the probability is that the bigger university will be able to tell a better story because it has gathered more material.
However, in reality, “it might be that the smaller unit of assessment is actually more engaged and impact focused”.
“I don’t think that’s a fair way of measuring the culture and leadership at the university in terms of impact.”
A better career path for scientists
The sciences in Australia do not have good career paths, says Monro. There is little job security, especially for younger researchers at a time when they need it most.
This is especially true for young women who may be thinking of starting a family.
“I would argue they are more biologically geared to need certainty at that late 20s early 30s age-group,” she says.
“In Australia it’s really not uncommon, even for highly productive young scientists, to do four or five two-year postdocs and still not be competitive for an academic role.”
Many universities are “waking up to the fact that the PhD is not a good training model for academics.”
At UniSA, she says, the PhD has been transformed to help students to build connections to the industries in which they might choose to work.
If similar change does not take place nationally “what we’ll have is concentrations of amazing research in Australia where we have a lot of funding for postdoc researchers, but maybe one in 20 of them might have a shot in an academic role – that system is broken”.
Monro is an advocate for working more closely with business and industry to boost academic employment mobility.
“In my field in the UK, US or Europe there are opportunities for people to go out of academia into really meaningful R&D roles in corporates, which can be more flexible and accommodating of periods of part-time work,” she says.
“They are not publication-based – they are productivity-based. And there are pathways back into academia, whereas in Australia once somebody leaves the publishing cycle it is generally harder to come back in.”
UniSA for one is moving in this direction though its Industry Professorships scheme, she says, providing opportunities for “people who have been out in industry doing innovation and R&D roles that might mean not having academic-type track records”.
Gender challenges in higher education
Monro is committed to ensuring higher education has a more diverse academic workforce.
She says there are many impediments to women building successful careers in academia: a view borne out by figures that show women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers – but just 17 per cent of senior academics in universities and research institutes.
One impediment is the way in which some men view ambitious women.
“I remember times along my path where I’d be spotting an opportunity, trying to figure out how we could land it, only to have senior male colleagues tell me they never thought I could be so aggressive,” she recalls.
“Now, nobody has ever heard me swear and I don’t raise my voice except in excitement – what would have been lauded as ambition and drive if I was male is thrown at me as aggression. That hurts.”
For women, she says, it is not simply talent that sees them rise to senior positions – tenacity is just as important.
“I’m very tenacious,” she declares.
SAGE initiative ‘a brilliant start’
Monro is optimistic that the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative will help to bring about change.
“SAGE is a brilliant start because it’s data focused. It requires institutions to take a cold, hard look at their internal processes and systems to try to flush out where the pipeline issues are.”
Another impeding factor for women are gendered “stumbling blocks”.
“When I had my first child at age 30 I was fortunate to have half a dozen PhD students and a couple of postdocs, so I could just weigh in with a couple of emails a week or a quick conversation and things didn’t grind to a total halt. But for people who haven’t had that opportunity to build capacity around them everything grinds to a stop.”
Monro has made a personal donation to UniSA’s new Research Momentum During Maternity Leave, which allows women going on maternity leave to apply for funding to keep up their research.
UniSA has also offered women-only fellowships in its Future Industries Institute.
“The quality of the applications was higher than what we normally get,” she says. “Women came out of the woodwork that normally wouldn’t rate themselves. But because it was for women-only they gave it a go.”
Challenges facing girls in studying science and technology
Monro is concerned about “the relatively weak pipeline of girls” choosing to study science and engineering at undergraduate level.
As patron of the National Youth Science Forum she has many opportunities to talk to school students about science-related careers.
The inherent “gendered nature” of science education in schools tends to develop more confidence in boys to tackle “hard” subjects – but much less in girls.
“The boys are just that bit more likely to say ‘well I like it, I’m good at it, I’ll give it a go’ while the girls are more likely to want to know where the career pathways are,” she says.
“And hand on heart I struggle with that because we don’t have good career pathways.”