Making Research Realistic with Erika Feller

Erika Feller is currently a Vice-Chancellors Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government. Erika’s experience in moving from the position of Assistant Commissioner for Protection at the UNHCR  into a university environment gives her a unique understanding of the use and demands for research in a very applied field, as well as a glimpse of what drives university research. So of course we asked her to discuss all of this over lunch with the K* Network.

Erika introduced us to her work at the UNHCR and discussed the various attempts that had been made to integrate more closely work by researchers with the needs of the UNHCR. The push for better evidence on which to base decisions was driven and supported by Antonio Guterres, now Secretary General of the UN. The most successful attempts to integrate research and research users were around the implementation of program monitoring and evaluation, perhaps because it naturally opens up a feedback loop for program improvements that are implementable and fully contextualized.

Erika noted as well that in her experience, university based researchers were reluctant to rely on grey literature type documents as sources of reliable/valid information. Given the huge number of reports that are produced by the UN (and all NGOs in my experience) that are based in rigorous research methods, this creates an unfortunate gap in what is considered valid for academic research purposes and contributes to a considerable amount of repetition of similar research across organisations.

Erika is still keen to see researchers working with end users and developing research that has direct applicability to protections for refugees and asylum seekers. To that end, Erika has been collaborating with the Melbourne Law School in developing a Centre of Excellence in Statelessness. The Centre aims to move academic research in this arena from a very theoretical base to a more action oriented space with a remit to inform policy and practise. In conjunction with the UNHCR and other powerful allies, the potential for this research to have significant positive impacts on the treatment and protection of stateless peoples is a promising development.

Of course Erika’s experiences launched a robust discussion including the role of leadership and culture in driving research use in organisations. This raised questions about the willingness of leaders to accept advice from “outside the circle”  and the place of programs like ‘thinkers in residence’ and ‘government readers’ and ‘knowledge brokers’ for creating positions where researchers can be insiders in both practitioner and research circles. Erika pointed us to research by UNSW in conjunction with UNHCR that has led to the development of a toolkit this is now being applied globally to identify women at risk in refugee situations. This research, driven by the end user has had ready acceptance within the practitioner community and is making a difference to the lives of vulnerable women. For research users like UNHCR, having more research in the social sciences that prioritizes substantive improvements to human well-being as an  outcome, would be a welcome thing.


Public Interactive Learning Labs – Housing Markets

Last year we decided to run a series of workshops that would help researchers to discuss their research and engage with the public in an interactive way. We called the workshops Public Interactive Learning Labs (PiLLs). At the end of each Lab we collated videos of the researchers’ presentations and we wrote short summaries of the event, including the public feedback and engagement. Some of the outcomes are available elsewhere but now we are putting all four events here in a series of four blogs. At about 10 mins each the videos are well worth watching!

Housing Markets PiLL

Property Markets, Public Policy and (big) Data by Prof Andy Krause

The Two Tier City and the Missing Middle by Kate Raynor

Rethinking the Big Australian Dream by Prof Piyush Tiwari


What’s up with the Australian housing market?

In a week where we were told that young people could buy houses if they ate less smashed avocado… we asked some researchers to talk about housing affordability, markets and design. In a broad ranging conversation, we learned that there is a common misconception that housing affordability is all about housing supply. Given the categorical rejection of this by our researchers we were taken through some of the other factors that affect affordability, design and supply of housing at different levels.

It turns out that our housing choices matter more than we know! Housing developers in Australia make significantly higher profits than in other countries but we have less choice in styles of housing or arrangements for co-development, co-housing or philanthropic development than other comparable countries. Australians are missing out on sustainable, community friendly housing options because of the lack of incentives and regulations that would encourage developers and investors to innovate in this space.

In a public discussion of the changes in housing markets and development in Melbourne suburbs, four University of Melbourne researchers Professor Piyush Tiwari, Kate Raynor, Dr Andy Krause and Professor Kate Shaw worked with an interested audience of public participants to understand the pros and cons of our housing market and what the alternative futures could be.

Those futures included housing designed for single individuals as Prof Piyush Tiwari indicated that this a significant growth area of housing need, with the number of single person households expected to exceed three million by 2020. Most single occupancy households will be young adults from the ‘millenial’ generation or older people looking to stay in their local communities while downsizing. The idea of ‘appropriate’ housing flowed through the discussion as Prof Kate Shaw showed international housing developments that are economically viable and put social and community needs at the centre of development. Prof Shaw’s research has indicated that more social housing would be made available if land released to developers included up front caveats on the inclusion of social housing.

Dr Andy Krause discussed the ‘rules’ of the housing market in terms of public and private ‘good’. Housing sits in a market area where home buyers need protections – it is a high value purchase and with generally not many available in the market at any time. On the other hand house owners often benefit disproportionately from public expenditure on social goods such as transport, roads and parks. House ownership also implies the ability to create a negative social impact through exploiting private property (for example renting space via AirBnB can create a problem for neighbours). All of these aspects of home ownership imply an unfair social and financial bias in favour of those who can afford to enter the property market.

The advantage extends even more so to those who live in the inner city, as Kate Raynor explained. Households on lower incomes tend to find more affordable housing in the outer suburbs but at the same time they then lack access to good public transport, jobs and other services that are centralised rather than dispersed. This makes accessing jobs and services more expensive in both time and fuel, creating further disadvantage.

There is a second demographic shift happening at the same time, according Dr Piyush Tiwari, as more Australians are looking for rental opportunities rather than buying their own houses. Developers are struggling to understand what the future market needs. Increases in rentals may be a side effect of the cost to buy but it could also be part of a demographic shift to being more mobile both locally and globally, and with Melbourne’s renowned multicultural ethos many immigrants are unaccustomed to the ideal of owning a house and are happy to rent.  This change in housing preferences leads to a need for the market to move to longer term leases and more effective caps on rent increases in order to maintain a reasonable level of housing equity.

Professor Shaw suggested that Australia is now well positioned to change the way that we approach social housing. Following the lead of Canada and Berlin we can look to new types of cooperative housing models, housing associations and other mixed market solutions. Investments required to make this work in Australia could include legislative change to ensure that superannuation funds invest ~1% of funds to low return social housing models. Funding new housing in this way would nudge innovations in property development and create benefits through secure (if low) returns on investment to all of us.

Public Interactive Learning Labs – Energy Transitions

Last year we decided to run a series of workshops that would help researchers to discuss their research and engage with the public in an interactive way. We called the workshops Public Interactive Learning Labs (PiLLs). At the end of each Lab we collated videos of the researchers’ presentations and we wrote short summaries of the event, including the public feedback and engagement. Some of the outcomes are available elsewhere but now we are putting all four events here in a series of four blogs. At about 10 mins each the videos are well worth watching!

Energy Transitions PiLL 

Future Grid Research, An Engineering Perspective by Prof Tansu Alpcan

Becoming Little Power Plants by Dr David Byrne

Energy Transitions and Hybrid Governance by Prof Lee Godden

Summary by Dr Sara Bice


From Big Grid to Mini Power Plants

Our one hundred year old power system might be keeping the lights on at the moment but Australians are demanding smarter and cleaner electrical infrastructure. Changes in both technology and regulation of the power industry in Australia are necessary to ensure equitable access to power into the future. These are some of the learnings from a feisty public discussion hosted by the Melbourne School of Government late in July 2016.

Experts in energy infrastructure, market design and law came together to share research and discuss public perceptions of Australia’s ability to transition to cleaner electricity, fair pricing and a smarter grid.

Professor Tansu Alpcan shared his research on distributed demand management which shows how we can use data at a local level to ensure that household production of electricity, through roof-top solar, can meet demand without compromising the existing infrastructure. Professor Alpcan indicated that changes in our electricity production and consumption are being driven by environmental concerns, new types of loads (such as electric vehicles), household battery storage that can act as a buffer for variable production, and sophisticated ICT that can real-time manage the local load on the grid.

Dr David Byrne noted that Victoria has the ability to move to dynamic pricing of electricity, thanks to the smart meter roll-out. While many people would be concerned about electricity prices fluctuating according to demand, decisions to reduce household consumption at particular times could be supported by real time data. Dr Byrne’s research indicated that the decision making process would be similar to that of decision making for off-grid systems that are driven by peak generating times and also supported by real-time data.

Dr Byrne also led the group in a discussion of the “electricity grid death spiral” which would push the price of electricity up for those least able to afford it, as shown here:

Professor Lee Godden explained how Australia has come to have a complex set of regulations that focus primarily on the economic rather than environmental outcomes of our electricity sector. This creates the tension that we now see with global agreements to cut greenhouse gas emissions while the Australian sector still has structural disincentives against the establishment of large wind and solar electricity production. Disincentives include grid access pricing and land use zoning that preclude these activities.

As the audience discussed these issues in small groups it became clear that there was a general desire that electricity markets should be more transparent and that this would require reduced regulatory complexity to be achieved. There was also significant concern for the ability of low income households to benefit fairly from moves towards distributed solar power generation rather than being caught in a situation of being overcharged for grid access.

On environmental matters the audience was adamant that Australia should uphold its international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as per the Paris Agreement, and that smarter distributed electricity generation with various forms of storage as a buffer would play an important part in achieving that aim.

Public Interactive Learning Labs – Youth Unemployment

Last year we decided to run a series of workshops that would help researchers to discuss their research and engage with the public in an interactive way. We called the workshops Public Interactive Learning Labs (PiLLs). At the end of each Lab we collated videos of the researchers’ presentations and we wrote short summaries of the event, including the public feedback and engagement. Some of the outcomes are available elsewhere but now we are putting all four events here in a series of four blogs. At about 10 mins each the videos are well worth watching!

Youth Unemployment PiLL

1: Young People & the Labour Market by Dr Dina Bowman:

2: Perceptions of youth unemployment by Prof Paul Kofman :

3: What do young people want from a job by Dr Dan Woodman :

4: Youth, risk, and labour market policy by Shirley Jackson :

5: Summary by Dr Kate Neely:


Australian’s want more support and less demonization of young people looking for work.

Australia should move towards a model of free tertiary education and universal basic income along with paid work internships and improved ‘pathways’ between education and work.

Youth unemployment rates are generally of concern for the broader public. When it is high or on the increase it becomes an election issue. Dr Dina Bowman explained that the statistics that are used to provide unemployment rates can be presented in a variety of ways and the groups that we traditionally see as youth, fifteen to twenty-four year olds, may be expanding as young people find it harder to gain full-time employment with an undergraduate degree.  Shirley Jackson showed that it takes an average of four years and eight months to find full time work after education. While participation rates for teenagers (the number of fifteen to nineteen year olds who want work) is quite low at just over fifty percent; the number of those who want to work but are unemployed is quite high, at just under twenty percent. Dr Dan Woodman explained that many of the forty percent of teenagers who are employed are not finding as much work as they would like, and are therefore under-employed which is also problematic.

Professor Paul Kofman explained that underemployment and media negativity is affecting young people, and specifically that Australian youth are amongst the most pessimistic in the world about their chances of having the future that they want. Paul indicated that the level of gloom amongst our young people contrasted sharply with the statistics showing that we are in a better situation than most other countries. While there are jobs being created in Australia and there are jobs that young people can take up, many of them are not in areas that are considered to be ‘lifetime trades’ but are more likely to be insecure retail and hospitality positions.  This all comes down to an acknowledgement that the full time job for a fifteen year old man does NOT exist anymore.

While it is uncontroversial that young people want employment, Dr Dan Woodman has been exploring what sort of employment young people want. His results indicate that young people are most concerned about having secure work and would prefer full-time jobs to part-time employment. This generation is less concerned with positional status than previous generations but are demanding more flexible work hours. The surprise is that for a generation who are concerned about job security and pay and conditions, they have little truck with the unions that might bring about the conditions that they want. While many young people are working and studying at the same time the reward for investing in tertiary education takes a long time. The audience noted that there seems to be an unrealistic expectation by employers of not needing to train young employees and that they will arrive with all the skills that they need. On this basis, and in reflecting on the rise unpaid internships as a ‘rite of passage’, the audience decided that an education to employment pathway that included paid internships would be a positive step forward in policy. This would also avoid the trap of only those young people who can afford an unpaid internship getting a continuing secure position.

Shirley Jackson works with young people around understanding their rights and responsibilities with regard to employment. He discussed two different ways that unemployment is perceived globally; Activation, the Australian model for labour market policy, is aimed at reducing benefits and pushing people into the labour market regardless of the availability of jobs. Activation is often associated with a rhetoric of demonization of the unemployed as lazy and dole-bludging. Another model is Active labour market policy which aims to reduce structural unemployment, grow skills and increase social inclusion. This model is applied in many of the Nordic countries. While these countries have higher youth unemployment rates than Australia currently has, the length of unemployment period tends to be significantly shorter with young people generally unemployed for less than six months. These countries have a pattern of skills matching, free tertiary education and adequate (rather than austere) living allowances for the unemployed, paid for through higher taxation.

The model of Active labour market policy appealed to the audience, despite the higher youth unemployment rates experienced under this model. It was perceived that the benefits of dealing with structural factors and supporting young people into work rather than blaming them for their inability to find a job would be more constructive in the long term than the Activation model. It was seen that having the skills to work, and therefore being employable and maintaining good self-esteem and mental health could be key factors in avoiding long term unemployment. On the question of whether ‘any job’ was better than ‘no job’ there was concern that some  jobs are in fact exploitative, but that in the most part getting any job is the start of a positive cycle of employment for young people who then develop skills, networks and economic capital. It was noted that young people face extra difficulties in seeking employment if they live in a regional area, have a disability or are indigenous or from a non-English speaking background. The audience tended to agree that extra support should be extended to young people in these situations.

Public Interactive Learning Labs – Taxation

Last year we decided to run a series of workshops that would help researchers to discuss their research and engage with the public in an interactive way. We called the workshops Public Interactive Learning Labs (PiLLs). At the end of each Lab we collated videos of the researchers’ presentations and we wrote short summaries of the event, including the public feedback and engagement. Some of the outcomes are available elsewhere but now we are putting all four events here in a series of four blogs. At about 10 mins each the videos are well worth watching!

Taxation PiLL

1 – Why Tax Petrol by Dr Leslie Martin :

2 – Tax Justice and Economic Rent by Dr Dan Halliday:

3 – Tax Avoidance by Prof Fiona Haines:

4 – Summary by Dr Sara Bice:

When it comes to tax, Australians want a fair go

Kate Neely and Sara Bice

Australia requires more stringent corporate tax enforcement, larger taxes on big inheritances and an end to negative gearing. These recommendations to politicians were the result of a recent Melbourne School of Government ‘public interactive learning lab’ which brought together community members and university experts from diverse fields to tackle the issue of tax in the upcoming election.

In an election where political parties are announcing major changes to taxation, how is the Australian public supposed to assess what these changes really mean, either at a personal level or at a national level?

The discussion tackled this question from unique angles, with members of the public voting on the most pertinent tax issues and suggesting policy reforms. Their suggestions incorporated views from a behavioural economist, a criminologist and historical philosopher (there has to be a joke in there somewhere!).

Tax is consistently a hot button election issue, but it is also one about which public understanding tends to be limited. At a national level, how does the government determine the amount of tax that is both appropriate and bearable? What should be taxed? Our labour? Our savings? Our consumption? Our resources? And why do some (wealthy) people pay almost no tax while those of us with fewer resources seem to have our income tax much more rigidly policed?

At a much more personal level, are changes to negative gearing good or bad? And for whom? Is it fair that Australians pay tax on income as well as on their consumption – do these taxes affect people’s life choices or just their wallets? If petrol tax changes, for example, will that change the amount of money available to aged care?

Taking the moral approach, historical philosopher Dr Daniel Halliday suggested that the justice of taxation is the issue at the heart of all tax debates. He asked whether is it acceptable to be heavily taxed for our labours while others are not taxed so heavily on resource ownership that creates wealth without labour (e.g. investment properties). Dr Halliday suggests that inequality is exacerbated through this means of taxation as “we can’t all have passive income”—money that comes primarily from inheritance or long-term savings, not of our own making. Those of us without passive income have to work harder and longer to pay the rent. So, does taxing effort or labour de-incentivise people to work?”

Petrol tax seems fairer – everyone who drives pays. The further you drive the more you pay. But Dr Leslie Martin of the Department of Economics pointed that while this is true, the tax that we pay on petrol is also not necessarily fair or equitable. For example, petrol tax does not necessarily cover the social costs of having a lot of cars on the road. Dr Martin also argued that the burgeoning use of electric vehicles will reduce petrol tax income while maintaining current levels of congestion and traffic accidents – the impacts of which are currently costed into petrol tax.

All of these questions come down to how we structure our tax regulation. According to criminologist, Professor Fiona Haines, Australian tax law has a notoriously complicated regulatory structure that allows large corporations – leveraging expensive legal services and assiduous accountancy skills – to exploit tax loopholes to become legal tax avoiders, not tax evaders.

Most of us lack the resources to achieve such “efficient” tax structures, leading to unequal treatment of entities and individuals under tax law. One attendee’s lament over Australia’s tax regulation summed up this inequality: “How is it that I worked for one of the world’s largest companies who paid basically no tax last year, but I was personally taxed 40 per cent?!”

For policy makers, tax equality is particularly challenging because it is the very complexity of tax law that facilitates big corporations to get around it.

 “Trying to get people to pay their fair share of tax through the use of law is like trying to drown a fish in water,” Professor Haines explained.

Audience members also raised concerns about technology making tax avoidance, or even evasion, easier for a larger group of income earners. Will these problems divert government resources towards policing digital tax evasion, rather than ensuring that high income earners are legally obliged to pay tax? The audience also suggested that simplifying tax law and bringing it up to date with new business models are essential.

Ultimately, government must be encouraged to focus on reducing inefficiencies by determining the optimal level at which items can be taxed, without compromising consumption, according to Dr Martin. In reality, at least in the case of inelastic items like petrol – those items which we will likely continue to buy at similar rates, regardless of price – there is significant inequality. Studies from the United States, for example, show that regardless of income level, consumers spend approximately the same amount of their incomes on petrol, even when prices are raised. For those on larger salaries, this proportion is easier to maintain. But for those on lower incomes, maintaining the same consumption levels requires trade-offs that reduce spending on other items.

And so tax, and what we do about it, quickly becomes an issue of social equality, inclusion and fairness. Perhaps, then, the message to our politicians in the upcoming election is this: When it comes to tax, most Australians just want a fair go.

Guest Post: Kate Raynor “On Collaborating on Collaborating”

We are very excited to have our first guest blogger, and to introduce to you Kate Raynor from the Transforming Housing action research network. Kate will pop up again in a coming post that will have links to videos from the Public Interactive Learning Labs so you will be able to see her talking specifically about housing issues. In the meantime Kate has taken up the challenge to put together a report that stems from a fabulous workshop with guest Judith Innes whose work in planning and participatory action research is inspirational across disciplines. Here is Kate, talking about collaborative processes.


On Collaborating on Collaborating

Kate Raynor

A few weeks ago I held in my delighted and relieved hands a new report called Engaging Research: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Collaborative Planning and Participatory Action Research. The report, published by the action research network Transforming Housing, features five short essays from researchers and practitioners specialising in housing, health, sustainability, government and planning. The report evolved from a Collaborative Planning Researcher Workshop hosted by Transforming Housing that all contributors attended. I recommend it as one of the best bite-sized, inter-disciplinary reports on collaborative action and research you’ll have the pleasure of reading in a long time. As the editor of the report I am, of course, completely without bias.

The report deals with questions about who to involve in collaborative processes, drawing on insightful contributions from Professor Carolyn Whitzman and Dr Melanie Lowe. Both authors highlight the benefits of collaboration, citing its capacity to support research-to-policy translation, influence change, help create actionable solutions to difficult problems and improve the policy relevance of research. Dr Kate Neely’s contribution canvasses processes of stakeholder engagement within research. She argues that one of the drivers of trust in research outputs is knowing and understanding the people and processes that are involved in research. Dr Andreanne Doyon introduces Transition Management to the repertoire of theoretical frameworks and collaborative practical processes available to those aiming to drive positive change. Finally, Mike Collins contemplates how to navigate the political, structural and resourcing barriers to collaboration ‘in the real world’ and presents some local government success stories. I really do recommend you read it.

Despite the glowing review I have just given it, I must admit I was dreading starting it and put it off for a number of weeks. I thought “what more can anyone really say about collaborative planning or participatory action research?” As an urban planner, my planning education and subsequent research has been suffused with references to collaborative planning. I was getting a bit bored.

However, as is often the case when people collaborate, the report is greater than the sum of its parts. What struck me within this report is the number of different disciplines discussing the importance of engaging with different knowledges, involving relevant stakeholders and working together to create and implement solutions but using different terms, priorities, processes and bodies of literature. And that is what has re-kindled my interest. I can see a role for Transition Management within planning. Similarly, insights from knowledge-transfer and policy-relevant research in health are no less applicable to housing, sustainability or government. This knowledge sharing enriches everyone and should be fostered despite the challenges of inter-disciplinary collaborations.


Public Interactive Learning Labs. What did we learn about engaging the public with current research?

Last year we were thrilled to win a grant that allowed us to trial a method of public engagement that we called the Public Interactive Learning Labs, PiLLs for short. These PiLLs were an amazing opportunity for us to explore important ideas from different perspectives. We loved that we got to share that exploration with others who were keen to share, curious to learn and open to new ideas and change, in the best traditions of our university.

The concept of the PiLLs was to look at topics that were of general political interest (remembering that last year we had a federal election) in a way that would help us to understand the issues beyond the media headlines. We chose our topics and we worked with researchers and educational designers to create a series of four free public events. The general format was four x 10min presentations and questions followed by a short break, then reconvening in a world cafe format that allowed the room to split into small groups to discuss the issues that arose. Discussion groups would record the highlights of their conversation and the events would wrap up with a list of ‘policy actions’ that came out of each discussion.

So that was the plan. We love plans… we especially love watching as reality catches up and we throw our plans out faster than the leftover Christmas trifle.

Okay it wasn’t that bad, but I think we learned a lot along the way too.

We wanted to attract an audience who wouldn’t normally be caught dead at a University of Melbourne lecture so we advertised on  social media and using the free Eventbrite management tool. For the event that was held off-campus (in Preston) we also advertised in the local suburban paper. Probably less than half of the overall attendees weren’t regulars at uni events. I say ‘probably’ because we  tried not to overwhelm attendees with survey and evaluation questions (in hindsight this may have been a mistake when it comes to understanding the value of the program).

We experimented with different tech – online, real time surveys and note sharing – and had mixed results. When it worked, it was brilliant. The survey questions integrated with the power point presentations to give speakers immediate feedback from the audience. Being able to show the world cafe conversations in real time and have a post-event record of them was also fantastic. What was not so good? Providing eight (loaned) laptops with access to internet (within the University IT system), and with the correct pages loaded required a level of preparation and planning that I hadn’t expected. This was made more problematic by using two different venues within the university and one outside of it. The applications were also available for mobile devices and participants were encouraged to download the apps before the event – for some people this was enough to put them off attending at all. Others simply didn’t engage with the technological aspects but enthusiastically joined the questions and discussions. We tried an event out in the suburbs and had our smallest audience (nine attendees), worst issues with technology, and  a particularly late start while our speakers battled crazy traffic and wild weather to get there.

On a happy note, I think we created an intellectual space that both the audience and researchers found unusual and worthwhile. As a university, the standard format for public seminars is to put an eminent figure or a panel of experts at the front of the room, let them talk (didactically) for about an hour and then take questions from a small number of audience members. Our events allowed for a genuine exchange of knowledge, questioning and learning. Small groups and technology allowed for more voices to be heard. The inclusion of research presentations around a topic rather than around a single discipline brought out multiple perspectives and gave an opportunity for senior researchers  to engage with the public and with early career peers from other disciplines. The general spirit of goodwill and engagement with ideas was a pleasure to be part of and reminded us of the best parts of university life as an intellectually stimulating, collaborative striving for a better world!

Welcome to Research Translation

Welcome to the MSoG Research Translation Blog!

This is our first blog and we are really excited to be able to share some of the fabulous research, courses, links and insights that we are finding through our research and programs. We also hope that you will join in the sharing and contribute to the blog with news, opinion, research and controversy.

In the interests of being both clear and inclusive we would like to start with  a little bit of definition. We take the broadest possible view of research translation – including knowledge transfer and exchange and research mobilisation etc…  across the whole research cycle. So in reality the topics that interest us, and that we will write about, include engagement, translation,transfer, mobilisation, exchange, knowledge, research and impact. We use K* as a bit of shorthand for the merging of all of these areas. We also have interests that cover complex adaptive systems theory, international development, social license, activism, climate change and more. Probably there will be guest blogs as well.

Picture of Kate and Sara in a cafe

Kate Neely (left) and Sara Bice (right)