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Thursday, 1 December 2016

Excellence and Transparancy in Research, Teaching and Operations

(Speech delivered at the Closing of 2016 series of UNITECH's 1 hour Tuesday research seminars, Rose Kekedo Foyer, PNGUoT Taraka Campus, 29 November 2016).

As always, it has been great today to be able participate in this very interesting research seminar. Thank you for inviting me and allow me to make a few closing remarks for this year's series.

Dr. Kaul Gena presenting his research at the seminar 22 November 2016

Let me cluster my remarks around three key questions. First, is there a standard of excellence for research? Secondly, what role do publicly funded research intensive universities play in the national innovation system? Third, what are UNITECH's contribution to research and innovation in PNG?



At UNITECH, we have gathered over 200 scientists, engineers, the largest such concentration in the country, and arguably in the whole Pacific  region. We also have a sizeable group of academics with backgrounds in management sciences, social scientist, some with qualifications in the humanities. This constitutes a tremendous potential, and a capital of huge value.

It is of course impossible to define one standard of excellence across all these disciplines. Nevertheless as a University for practical purposes we need some type of standard, in line with best practice of leading research schools. Let's first establish that this is an academic matter, and therefore a prerogative of the Academic Board and the Staffing Committee. As a Statuatory organization the University is autonomous in deciding its criteria for academic promotion and appointment, and this is unrelated to the normal provisions of the Public Service Management Act. At UNITECH all our academics are contract staff, and the university has autonomy in establishing the conditions of the contract.

In order to make promotions more transparant, in 2014 a sub-committee of the staffing committee revised our criteria for appointment and promotion. Over the last two years we habe utilized two main, hard criteria for all academic appointments and promotions: points for publications and years of teaching experience.

The golden standard for promotions and appointments remains the 10 point publication, which is generally a journal article in a listed publication, or in other words a journal with a peer review system. Since 2014, researchers can earn points with other publications, which makes the system more flexible and adaptable to individual research profiles. 

Now for 2017 we made a small correction in the total points required, and we re-introduced the provision of promotion to Senior Lecturer with a doctorate and two publications in listed journals in the last two year. This was done to allow nationals who obtain a doctorate abroad to be immediately promoted upon return. It is only fair that nationals can play this home advantage.

As to teaching experience, the second criterion, in order to acknowledge industry experience we generally equate 2 years of industry experience with 1 year of academic experience. In addition, those who obtain our PG certificate in student-centred teaching gain 3 years of teaching experience for promotion purposes.

This system is not perfect, but it has injected a large degree of objectivity in what was before a rather arbitrary exercise. We believe it has done much to minimize jealous squabbles, interdepartmental wars and generally minimized academic corruption.

We still can not assess the quality of the journals across all our disciplines, although in the sciences the impact factor can be utilized. Similarly, we still can not measure the impact and citations of individual researchers, although through Google scholar we can see somebody's h-index.

Now in order to redress errors of the past, we can promote people in subsequent years. We decided we would never allow staff to skip a grade, but there is nothing in the rules that prohibits promotions in quick succession. (The only exception is promotion from Lecturer 1 to 2 which requires a minimum of 2 years in between). Stopping promotions would in fact be odd, because it is a good thing when people move up the ranks fast. Those who have evidence that the Staffing Committee broke these rules are asked to come forward instead of writing anonymous letters to the newspapers.

While in the old UNITECH days in order to get promotion it was sufficient to be a friend of the Vice Chancellor, now this door is closed. Our Management however is committed to giving nationals ample opportunities to pursue higher degrees. For those over 40 and who can not easily leave the country, in our own in-house Master and PhD programs. For the younger ones, by multiplying the opportunities to go abroad. One such new opportunity is offered by our Top Talent program, which consists of bilateral agreements with specific universities such as QUT, IIT-Gandhinagar in India, and recently the University of Ferrara in Italy. These are all world class universities which offer tuition waivers for reserved places for our graduates and staff.

Even our Council medal winners, who are not employed, can participate in this program as staff in training of our departments. Untying strict bond arrangements is the only way to assure the country can receive PhD holders younger than 35 to contribute to nation building. We hope they come to work for us, but if they choose to work for industry, we can still tap into their knowledge, energy and experience through adjunct appointments (without salary). The previous system used in the career development office produce mostly PhD holders older than 45, which is too old to pursue a successful academic career and make it to the professors grade.

Now let's return to our second question: what role do publicly funded research intensive universities play in the national innovation system?

Governments in countries like PNG do not always understand that only true universities which combine research and teaching can generate new knowledge required. Similarly, they sometimes fail to grasp that even though they pay up to 75% of our bills, they are not allowed to appoint the Chancellor or Pro-Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor, the Deans or the Professors. In the coming 5 years, we expect the next Chairperson of the PNG Vice Chancellor's Committee to make a strong case for public universities, something which has not been done over the past 5 years leading to the legal stalemate over the 2014 Higher Education Act.

Research is in our DNA. Only at UNITECH can applied research of the highest level take place. Only at UNITECH do we have a critical mass of early-stage (post-doc) and advanced researcher who can conduct research independently. For this a Masters degree is not sufficient, and the doctorate degree has been and will be the only hallmark of an independent researcher.

Let me name a few examples of exciting interdisciplinary research with real market potential, Prof. Gideon on the potential of locally known tree fruits, Dr. S. Gopalakrishnan on nanotechnology, the anti-bacterial and anti-malarial properties of molecules derived from plants, Dr. Lydia Yalimbing on food security, Dr. Veronica Bue on gender in agriculture, Prof. Akanda and Dr. Ronnie Dotaona on plant diseases, and Dr. Tom Okpul work in biotechnology on fungi that prevent pests in crops. This type of research has the potential to lead to marketable innovations, if the "valley of death syndrome" can be avoided.

Then there is applied research which enhances general understanding of fundamental processes, which in the future may lead to innovations. Dr. J. Gopalakrishnan for example supervising Kundo Hundang research on cadmium related illnesses, and Dr. Kaul Gena on the formation of rocks 1000 meters under the ocean.

Finally, there is applied consultancy work which helps solve immediate problems now, for example Dr. Renagi's work on sediments in Watut river and Huon Gulf. 

Forgive me for what I have listed is skewed by what I have learned this year, but there is much more research ongoing in GIS, surveying, communication, and engineering. I failed to mention several examples, and I hope to be reminded of them afterwards.

A vibrant research culture is nourished by many activities. Today, UNITECH:

  • hosts the largest PG program in the country with over 200 students,
  • has delivered consistently an annual PG seminar with over 50 presentations and industry participation,
  • organizes a bi-annual Huon seminar,
  • publishes 4 academic journals,
  • in 2016, hosted 1 international workshop this year, and 1 virtual conference,
  • new PhD holders 10 minutes thesis in the Academic Board, and
  • held 24 one hour research seminars.

In order to respond to the demand form knowledgeable, competent and self-directed professionals in the country, the University's target is to grow this to 25% of total student population by 2018.

In all fairness to my predecessors, in the 1980s UNITECH has an active PG studies program, but it slowly died down due to lack of resources and brain drain. Vice Chancellor Moramoro was able to get support to build the ICTS, ERMC and PG dorms. Regrettably this policy was not consistently followed and when I came in 2012 efforts to create the minimum conditions for research and an adequate research infrastructure were barely starting. Only in July 2015, for example, were we able to obtain reliable broadband connection through the O3B system.

Without an attempt to obtain accountability and transparency in our finances for the 18 years previous to my arrival, there was no way of partnering with external organizations, or obtaining funding for our research or infrastructure. Only this year were we able to have external audit opinions which were not adverse or disclaimers, but are only moderately qualified.

[Regrettably I can't say much about the annual PG seminar, since it always falls during my annual leave. Masters and PhD students present their work in progress, and independent researchers present their publications. 

Unfortunately, the Huon Seminar was cancelled this year due to the University's closure, but next year we hope we can hold it after the elections. We are still looking for a chair person.

We publish four journals, but none of them are listed. We invited the editors therefore to set up a peer review system and apply for a listing. 

This year we organized a workshop on innovation in agriculture food security in the framework of the European Commission's PACE-NET program "Innovation and Agriculture with a focus on Papua New Guinea" held here on 30-31 May 2016.

Last week, Dr. Mirzi Betasolo and her team at civil engineering organized a wonderful virtual conference with over 20 papers presented and participants from many different countries. The PNG time zone was fortunate for participants in Philippines and Australia, but a bit early for Indian and a bit late for US based researchers.

This year we had 3 returning PhD candidates. All three were asked to tell the academic board, which includes our 12 professors, in 10 minutes what there research was about. In academia, acknowledgement is the common currency.]

In sum, we have brought focus into our research activities by multiplying opportunities to obtain a final degree, enhancing research infrastructure, and establishing clear criteria for academic appointment and promotions. It has become clear now to all that what constitutes money in the bank for business men, votes for politicians, the citation index (h-index) is the yardstick academics.

Third, what is UNITECH's specific contribution to research and innovation in PNG?

True Universities, however, generate new knowledge, and graduates who are life-long self propelled learners. Polytechnics, teaching colleges and private universities have an important role in replicating existing knowledge and imparting skills. Private for-profit, or allegedly not for profit universities, are generally barely interested in PhD and Masters programs (except MBAs), will avoid high investment disciplines (e.g. engineering or medicine), or do not have the experience academics to supervise high quality thesis research.

Today the challenge before the state owned, publicly funded universities is, how to bring this applied research into our teaching, and to contribute to the development of marketable products.

For our teaching we must strive for excellence, and not undermine our achievements in research by shoddy and sloppy teaching. We can not contribute to nation building of we produce half educated graduates , who lack skills problem solving and critical thinking capabilities. For our teaching programs therefore we must at the very least do what we say we are doing. 

Last year, we produced great advance in our accreditation efforts by introducing subject files. All our colleges, Surveying, Applied Physics, Applied Sciences and CDS departments have almost 100% of subjects have files. The culture has changed from "trust me" to "show me", and the process is irreversible. At the end of next year, the first departments will undergo their external assessment, which is generously sponsored by ExxonMobil.

As to innovation, we need to develop closer innovation partnership with industries. From March next year, every third Wednesday of the month we will have an industry-university breakfast to foster and develop those ties. We are in an advanced stage with some companies to sponsor innovative student projects which will be brought together in a business incubator.

Let me close by quoting our Dean PG studies, Prof. Akanda: without a PhD and Masters program, there is no research, without research there is no innovation, and without innovation there is no nation building, economic growth or development. Without quality in teaching, research and operations, there is no growth or development. Due to the recently achieved transparency in our finances we are now starting again to engage with national and foreign partners who can make resources available for us.

A final reflection: UPNG and UNITECH were gifts of the Australian people to PNG at independence. They were not a Trojan horse, or a pandora's box of strikes and boycotts, rather they hold the key to the future development of the country.

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