Report from the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit

Report from the Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit Researchers face the challenge to better showcase their world-changing work.

More than 200 of the world’s brightest minds converged on UNSW Sydney this week for the 2019 Times Higher Education Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific to explore powerful ways universities and researchers are addressing some of the planet's most pressing issues.

The event underscored the need for higher education institutions to outwardly champion the value and significance of their research.

UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs led that charge when he implored higher education leaders to continue to fight for research in the public interest and to work better together, during his remarks at the opening gala dinner.

"Academics and university leaders must be proactive in sharing their stories": UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs opens the summit. Photo: Maja Baska.

One of the challenges university leaders were facing, Professor Jacobs said, was lagging enthusiasm for public funding for universities and research. Countries such as Australia and the UK had to fight for funding and recognition of the value of universities and research, he said.

“Academics and university leaders must be proactive in sharing their stories and emphasising the link between universities and the research that, ultimately, advances society,” said Professor Jacobs.

“We have to make our communities care enough to champion our work and influence the government to care as well.”

Sharing the message

During a session chaired by UNSW Science Dean Professor Emma Johnston titled 'How does research achieve public good in the 21st century context', Mark Searle, Executive Vice-President and University Provost at Arizona State University – one of UNSW’s partners in the PLuS Alliance – said higher education institutions did a poor job in helping the public understand the value-add from universities and research.
“What we do a very good job of is telling it to ourselves; the job that we do and how well we do it,” said Professor Searle.

“If we’re going to actually change that conversation, then that conversation has to have had engaged the public in a meaningful dialogue about what it is we do, why we do it and why it’s of value to them. We have a responsibility to construct the research designs in ways that actually lead down that path,” he said.

John Gill, editor of Times Higher Education, said negative media coverage in some places around the world had contributed to the disconnect between universities and the public. In Australia, for example, the government introduced a “national interest test” to decide what research it would fund.
However, 2018 Australian of the Year and quantum computing pioneer UNSW Professor Michelle Simmons said that in her experience traveling across Australia, the public’s response to her research had been positive and supportive.

2018 Australian of the Year and quantum computing pioneer UNSW Professor Michelle Simmons in discussion at the event. Photo: Jacquie Manning.
“I have been really reassured that science is something that is highly valued, innovation is highly valued,” Professor Simmons said.

“One of the things that I see is that things reported in the media are not reflective of what I meet on the ground. It has been a fabulous year and people are curious, they want to know what it is we really do,” she said.
Sir Fraser Stoddart, the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry who recently joined UNSW, said he was a great advocate for supporting people, not projects.
“My whole career has shown that project-driven research is not good value for money,” Sir Stoddart said. “The best value for money comes from giving people that are likely to have great ideas, free rope, free rein, and to just go out there and explore. This is when serendipity visits, when you’re in this land of ‘we’re having fun, we’re just doing this for the sheer love of it’.”
Making a real difference
In his closing remarks, Professor Jacobs said delegates and speakers discussed how research translated into a public good in multiple ways from massaging baby rats to understanding how what threatens us is changing – from old threats like infectious diseases to new threats, and potential threats, such as those brought on by political crises such as Brexit or technological frontiers such as the development of AI.
“We have reinforced the value of fundamental discovery research. We have reinforced the importance of linking our research and educational efforts more closely,” Professor Jacobs said.
“And we have formed a consensus in the room, that the research produced in our part of the world has enormous potential yet to be tapped.” 
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