Sean Li: Academic promotion criteria must change

UNSW Sydney materials scientist Sean Li is leading a collaborative project with China’s Hangzhou Cable Company to develop more efficient power lines. The goal is to increase electricity transmission in China by 5%, producing an annual saving of 275 terawatt hours, more than Australia’s total electricity consumption. Meanwhile, Professor Li and his team have developed a transparent, flexible material that can be used to produce transistors so small they are actually two-dimensional. The advance, published in Nature earlier this year, paves the way for a new generation of seamless wearable electronics.

Where and when were you born?
Canton, now Guangzhou, in 1962.

How has it shaped you?
I grew up on a campus. My father was a material science engineering scholar at South China University of Technology. My mother was a doctor. I chose materials science engineering because my dad did. He was working on polymers, but he asked me to go into physical metallurgy, which is where all materials science engineering grew out of.

You taught in China and Singapore before coming to Australia. What was the biggest difference?
In Singapore, everything was set up and ready for new scholars. Your office, the new office, the computers – wow! Coming here to Australia was quite a surprise. I only had 20,000 Australian dollars [£11,400] seed funding to establish my lab. My room had been freshly painted, but it was empty. The school principal said, “Hey Sean, go get what you want.” I was so happy. I went to the department store and bought a very nice desk and the computer with the best configurations. Then I received the bill from the school. “What is this?” I asked. “Well, you have to pay for that, right?” “How?” I asked. “From your A$20,000 start-up.” I was shocked. Today my team has the most advanced laboratory of its kind in Australia – a world-class facility with over AU$16 million worth of equipment.

Which approach is best?
At that time, the Australian approach was a kind of hunger therapy. It turned you into a tiger, actively seeking funding. When you have ability and energy but no money, what are you going to do? Here and there, little by little, you build it. In Australia, as long as you work hard and demonstrate your abilities, you get the reward. The institution is happy to support you. This does not necessarily happen in other cultures. Some people do very well and get a lot of support; some don’t. It depends, sometimes, not only on your capacities but also on political factors or human relations. Here in Australia, these relationships are not so critical.

What’s your secret to finding industry collaborators?
After graduating from high school, I worked as a shipyard engineer for two years. I also worked for a very short time as a currency broker in Guangzhou. Working in the industry teaches you to speak the language of the industry. In the United States, many universities recruit scholars from industry – IBM, Motorola, companies like that. Here in Australia, most academics come straight out of their PhDs and don’t understand the needs of industry. This is important because for every dollar the industry invests with you, they want to see two or three dollars in return.

How can universities make their research more attractive to industry?
First, we must consider improving the criteria for promotion in academia. Australian universities compete with the US, Canada, UK, Europe and Singapore for international students. This can make them very attentive to rankings, focusing on citations, posts and h-indexes. The track record of academics, which is usually based on these types of indicators, tends to determine the success of funding applications. This can disadvantage those who have creative ideas but lack a competitive track record.

How can researchers get a head start?
We need an environment that allows scholars to pursue their passions with determination, perhaps for a lifetime. [UNSW photovoltaic pioneer] Martin Green is a good example. He just continued to follow his interest, his passion. You accumulate experience and eventually you become a leader. If you follow what others are doing, you won’t have that accumulated experience.

There is intense global competition in the development of transistors and computer chips. Why choose to work in such a disputed field?
In terms of manufacturing, Australia needs to focus on high-end technologies where China is not yet a leader. China has the largest market in the world, super manufacturing capacity, a giant supply chain network and lower labor costs, which are hard to compete with. Our team has accumulated knowledge in nanoscale transistors. We lead the game in this area for two years. And we don’t sit around waiting for others to catch up.

What do you like most about academia?
The most important thing is freedom. Freedom in how you use your time; freedom to pursue things that interest you. If you don’t have freedom, why would you want to become an academic?

What do you hate most about academia?
It’s not exactly a dislike. But the nature of academia is that we run a marathon, and it’s not about who wins – it’s more about who is the last to drop out. You just have to keep running. When funding opportunities arise, you must submit applications. Whether you get funded is often a matter of luck, but whether or not you apply is a matter of attitude. They are different things, and attitude is more important. You might say, “I’ve already submitted so many unsuccessful applications – forget it!” It’s boring and stressful, but you have to keep trying. You keep running. Never give up. Never say fail.

If you were university minister for a day, what would you do?
The important thing is a targeted investment. We need large-scale research equipment to have a real impact. Sometimes it feels like if you got funding this year, you won’t get it next year. If this is how we keep doing things, we’re not going anywhere.

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1983 Bachelor of Engineering, Wuhan University of Technology

1983 Engineer, Wenchong Shipyard, Guangzhou

1988 Master of Engineering, South China University of Technology

1988 Lecturer, Analysis Center, Guangdong University of Technology

1998 PhD, University of Auckland

1998 School of Materials Engineering, Nanyang Technological University

2005–present School of Materials Science and Engineering, UNSW Sydney

2018-present Director, UNSW Materials and Manufacturing Futures Institute


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