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Campus News : March 2013
CONNECT: OPINION ustralian universities spend approximately $7 billion per year on research. How often, however, do they invest in global programs that have the greatest impact on people's lives? The answer, unfortunately, is rarely due to the way research impact is currently assessed. This issue is set to be addressed as the Federal Government is looking to create a different measure of research effectiveness in 2015 which will require universities to develop new ways of organising their resources. Universities such as Wollongong and Melbourne are already addressing the wellbeing of our world through cross-disciplinary models designed to improve community-wide needs, such as UOW's "Transforming Lives and Regions" project, now improving innovative manufacturing and ageing and wellbeing in the Illawarra region. Australia's share of global research outputs is over three percent and growing. The release of the Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) outcomes late last year focused attention on the improvement of Australian research since the last assessment in 2010. At the same time there has also been much talk about the importance of "impact" and how we might measure it. The Group of Eight (G08) and Australian Technology Network (ATN) universities released the results of their impact assessment trial in which they nominated research outputs with tangible benefits. Not surprisingly, the case studies show that Australian research can have a significant impact. What these assessments do not capture is the increasing international recognition of the importance of large-scale multidisciplinary research programs to solve the world's "grand challenges" in areas that will benefit future generations. The way we live and interact with each other is changing at a rapid pace. Technology, for example, is now embedded in all we do from holding business meetings online to ordering groceries on our smart phones. People are enjoying easier access to their friends and family via social media and advances in medical research have enabled us to enjoy longer, healthier lives than ever before. Such changes to our world hold exciting possibilities and a hopeful forecast for the future. However, as our way of life alters so too do the potential issues to be faced and problems which need to be solved. The world, for example, is beginning to steer towards low carbon economies, people are living longer and our coastal environment is under increasing threat. How will economic changes impact on manufacturing-based regions? What transformations will we need to make to ensure a longer life is also a better life for our ageing population? Is it possible to start from scratch when it comes to designing a more sustainable coastal environment? Some universities around the world are beginning to organise their research efforts in ways designed to harness the expertise of world-class researchers to solve complex, real-world problems. The Grand Challenges Program at Princeton University, launched in 2007, is tackling three key areas of energy and climate change, eliminating poverty in Africa and global health and infectious disease. Warwick and University College London have distinctive initiatives under way in the UK. Here in Australia we are following their lead with the Universities of Melbourne and Wollongong announcing Grand Challenge and Global Challenge programs respectively, with Wollongong's program organised under the unifying theme of "Transforming Lives and Regions". An example from the private sector is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports research in global health, development and policy. The Foundation has provided total grants of $25 billion for projects such as the development of new vaccines, new crops and farming practices in the Third World. All these grants are awarded to teams of researchers collaborating across disciplines. Bringing researchers from a variety of disciplines together with business, government and community partners to work on the biggest challenges facing Australia and the rest of the world, can capitalise on the basic research currently being undertaken by university teams and their partners. Collaborations should be aimed at encouraging and developing creative and community-engaged research that will help to drive social, economic and cultural changes, not just locally, but across the globe. These Global Challenge programs have some common characteristics. They combine the excellence of investigator-driven, disciplinary research on which much of ERA is focussed, with the importance and benefits of contributing to real-world problems. That is what impact is all about. Not only will research outcomes be improved, but the fundamental objective is to benefit the public. After all, isn't that why universities exist? For university research to make a real impact and benefit future generations, opportunities must be created to cross research boundaries through multidisciplinary collaboration and ideas need to be shared through local, national and international research partnerships. Governments and funding agencies must find ways to properly assess their quality and tie more funding to community or industry outcomes so that future generations can reap the benefits. If this is achieved, Australian universities can truly play a significant role in changing our world for the better. A MARCH 2013 CONNECT: UOW 5 UNIVERSITIES CAN RISE TO GLOBAL CHALLENGE BY DEPUTY VICE-CHANCELLOR (RESEARCH) PROFESSOR JUDY RAPER "Bringing researchers from a variety of disciplines together with business, government and community partners to work on the biggest challenges facing Australia and the rest of the world ..."