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The DVCs: Tim Brown

Tim Brown
Email: tim.brown@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt de Neef:
Hello and welcome to another La Trobe University podcast. My name is Matt de Neef and today I'm joined by Professor Tim Brown. He's the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for research here at La Trobe University. Thanks for your time today, Tim.

Tim Brown:
It's great to be here.

Matt de Neef:
Now for listeners that might not be familiar with the university’s management structure, what does a Deputy Vice-Chancellor do, and where does your role fit into the grand scheme of things here?

Tim Brown:
Well, that's a good question, and there's not a very easy answer to that. I think one of the things that I enjoy most about my job is that it's pretty different every day. For example today I'm doing this particular activity, which I haven't done before.

My general role is to take, on the one hand, responsibility for research at the university. So the council sets our plans and our targets, and then it's my job to make sure that we are on track for getting those targets met, or as close as possible. I need to work very closely with the Deans in that because they are the leaders of the operational units of the university, the faculties.

But I also have a very important role in setting strategy and policy for the university in the research area. That's a role that often has to go across many different faculties and take into account a lot of different points of view, as well as to make sure that we’re compliant with all kinds of federal government requirements. This is both in terms of research integrity, animal and human ethics and gene manipulation, as well as the conduct of research and the funding of research.   Our federal government funding is dependent on our compliance in many ways and also on making sure that we get the right data to Canberra at the right time.

Matt de Neef:
Now, of course, a lot of the big research projects require enormous amounts of money to get off the ground, and be maintained obviously. Is it part of your role to negotiate that funding with government organisations, or is that left to the research groups themselves?

Tim Brown:
Look my involvement in this aspect is highly variable. Most large projects will involve some input from me at some time, and indeed one of the things that I've done since I've come to La Trobe is to make sure that when a researcher is going into a large project, that there is a sign off from his or her head of school, from the Dean of the faculty, and also from me on the resources that the university’s going to be committing towards that project.

And it's very important that we have that because that means that there are no misunderstandings internally about how we're funding the project, and of course very crucially no misunderstandings externally. So getting those external and internal negotiations happening is my role in a general sense, but often the Dean will play a crucial role and the head of school will play a crucial role. Probably the most crucial role is played by the individual researcher, who builds the relationship with the outside funding body and who has to deliver the research at the end of the day.

Matt de Neef:
And there's plenty of research going on around La Trobe's five faculties at the moment. But if you have to pick out a couple of the most exciting projects that are happening right now, what would you say?

Tim Brown:
We've got a wonderful Centre of Excellence in Coherent X-Ray Science. It's one of my favourite areas at the university, because it involves some of the great physics that happens here in that coherent x-ray science area, but it also involves biologists. And getting those two groups together doing really cutting edge interdisciplinary work, and looking at things like the malaria parasite as an example of ways of imaging that are completely new, I think this is tremendous stuff and attracting great international attention.

Matt de Neef:
Do you see a lot of projects within La Trobe that are interdisciplinary with different departments working together?

Tim Brown:
That's a big aim for us, to increase that amount of interdisciplinary research, as a result of the strategic plan in 2007 and continuing on in the new strategic plan. We do have a number of cross faculty, cross disciplinary research institutes.

One is the Institute for Human Security and another is the Institute of Molecular Science. Again, there is a very interesting cross-disciplinary activity in Archaeology and Molecular Science.  Two more are the Institute of Social Participation and the Institute of Social and Environmental Sustainability, of which the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Sustainability is the new director just appointed. So that's a very exciting development, and will make a lot of difference I think in a lot of different areas.

Matt de Neef:
Now, the research strengths video series is gradually coming to a close, with one or two more videos left to be released. For those that might not have heard of the seven strengths series, what's your idea behind it and what are the videos about?

Tim Brown:

Well, the research plan that was adopted by council last year does delimit seven areas of strength of the university. They're rather broad areas of strength, but one of my main themes about research at La Trobe is that it's research built by people, and this seven strengths series enables us to take a lot of our prominent researchers at La Trobe and have them tell their story on screen.

And I must say, it's been fascinating to watch the evolution of that series, and to watch it get more and more exciting. I must say one of my best times is when one of the videos comes into my office and we sit down and look at it. I'm always left feeling very invigorated and energised by those researchers, and by the amazing variety of both fundamental and applied research that is going on here at La Trobe, which is so well highlighted in that series.

Matt de Neef:
Are those videos being constructed for an internal audience only or they're being circulated wider?

Tim Brown:
I am very keen that they should appear on the front page of our website, and I have that as a long-term aim, because I think it's a great way for the university to highlight, particularly to incoming higher degree by research students, the range of work that is happening here.

It's one thing to go and look at the static webpage, and to see a list of publications, and to see some of the exciting places that our work is appearing.   That can be terrific for a student who is very focused on a particular researcher and perhaps on coming to work with that particular researcher.

But if you want to get a taste of the action that is happening here, of the exciting possibilities that are here, under broad thematic areas, then I think this seven strengths series is a really good and new way of seeing a lot of the important work that is going on here.

And I think over time we'll find that it's very attractive, both for students and for the more general public who want to see a taste of what's happening at La Trobe, to be able to go to those videos and see that taste.

Matt de Neef:

You touched before on the university strategic plan which is called Vision 2015, and it's a document that to quote, "outlines the ways in which La Trobe will prepare itself for success in a rapidly changing higher education environment." As a Deputy Vice-Chancellor for research, where would you like to see the university in five years time, in 2015?

Tim Brown:
With a lot more high quality research of the kind that we are already producing. With a much greater sense for staff of the opportunities that they have as they develop their careers, particularly for periods when they will be very active in research.  Our key researchers must get the time to do their research, and perceive how their careers can evolve and must be able to take opportunities for particularly focused periods of research at particular times.

I'd like to see more funding for research at La Trobe, and a great thing about the agenda of this government, started in their last term and now continuing in the new term, is the new block funding that is coming to the university sustainable research excellence. That will produce $300 million additional money every year across the nation.

And our goal will be to try and secure as much of that funding for La Trobe as we possibly can. There is a commitment in the strategic plan, the new one, that eighty percent of that additional money at La Trobe will be spent on our strengths. We haven't yet worked out how we're going to do that, but that will be a key topic of discussion and resolution over the next period.

I think we'll have a combination of some funding going to our strengths on a formula basis, that is the way that it is being earned, but also a targeted investment in our strengths as well. That will be my vision to make sure that both of those activities happen. The university has agreed to a plan of the Vice-Chancellor and me to make a particular investment in humanities and social science over the next few years.

So we have some very exciting appointments that will happen as a result of consultancy process that the dean of that faculty is engaging in now.  These appointments will make a very big difference, both to our research, but also to the development of the teaching and other programs of each faculty.

Matt de Neef:
Now before coming to La Trobe, you were at Australian National University for a number of years Of course, ANU is a ‘group of eight’ university and widely regarded as one of the strongest in the country. When you first came to La Trobe were the differences between the two universities apparent?

Tim Brown:
Yes, I've got a bit of a mixed up career. I've been a Professor in Australian universities for an embarrassingly long time now, over 20 years. And for that 20 years, I was in three different ‘group of eight’ universities, University of Western Australia, University of Melbourne, and Australian National University.

I think one of the things that I love about La Trobe is its flexibility and its ability to adapt in a changing environment. I think that's a key strength of the university in times where adoption of change is going to be necessary for survival, in my view.

I think that we have had the capacity here at La Trobe to adapt to different circumstances, and the next period will provide us many opportunities to evolve and adapt more, as the funding and other environment changes.

It is, I think, more difficult in some universities to have that kind of flexibility. I think La Trobe has had a very interesting niche, where it's always had a view of its interaction with society which has been at the heart of its values, and at the same time has had a view of itself as a significant international research university. And keeping those two things going, I think, is something that will be very important for La Trobe and provide many opportunities.

This federal government has a strong agenda for social change, and for increasing participation in higher education. I think La Trobe, with its regional campuses, with its orientation, with its interaction with society, is ideally placed. And I don't think that is confined just to curriculum and participation of undergraduates, I think it flows through to participation of students in higher degrees by research, and then to the kind of research that we do and the problems that we are willing to get involved in the solution.

Matt de Neef:
Do you still get a chance to do a research of your own now that you've taken on a more administrative role?

Tim Brown:
When I moved from being a Head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics of the University of Melbourne to be Dean of Science at ANU, I had an interesting conversation with the Vice-Chancellor there on that particular topic. And he said, "I don't mind if you continue to do research but I won't be interested at all in the results of that research. I'm employing you to be the leader of the Faculty of Science and I want you to devote energies to that task."

And I realized that that was very good, if pragmatic, advice from the Vice-Chancellor. I did have a number of research projects and a couple of students who was still finishing PhDs at that time and so those commitments through, but I do find that I do find that my role here takes all of my time.

Matt de Neef:
You don't miss the research at all?

Tim Brown:
I miss it desperately, and I actually also miss teaching. I find that when I'm engaged in public communication activities about research inside the university, I find this some of the most engaging time that I have. Interacting with individual researchers about their research is one of the wonderful benefits of my job, and often I can get very stimulated by their ideas and think back to the times that I was able to work through ideas.

I did go to a conference recently, to honour a colleague and it was a research conference. It was fascinating the first two papers in this conference were very relevant, and mentioned work that I have done earlier in my career. And it was fascinating that I was immediately embroiled in the problems that were being talked about. So perhaps there will be a life after Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, and perhaps that life will include some interaction back with my love of mathematics and probability theory in particular.

Matt de Neef:
If you'd like to learn more about the great research that is going on at La Trobe University, or check out the seven research strengths videos, head to www.latrobe.edu.au/research. Also, if you'd like to leave a comment about this podcast or any other podcast in the series, you can send an email to podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Tim Brown thanks so much for your time today.

Tim Brown:
Great to speak with you, Matt.