We – humanity – desperately need to solve these problems, although they are daunting. The problems feel too big, too multi-dimensional. Addressing any one of them is a gigantic task that does not only cross the borders of nations, but transcends the borders of disciplines and institutions.
One important strategy to solve such problems is to focus on some of the more manageable, smaller parts of the overwhelming issues. The White House calls them the ‘grand challenges’ of our times. These are the challenges of improving the quality of education, improving the health of a society, or developing sustainable energy. They are goals that are important to society and that capture society’s imagination.
Grand challenges are ambitious yet achievable. They have measurable targets for success and timing of completion. But grand challenges are also compelling. They are intrinsically motivating and they will drive people, set free their energy, and make them devote a major part of their professional lives to those purposes. In order to achieve grand challenges, to solve our big problems, we will need the best research to generate the knowledge and technologies on which the problems’ solutions can be built.
Traditionally, universities have played a major role in research and innovation, particularly in basic research. The unwritten, but real, social contract for universities includes – as a crucial element – the idea that universities are organisations that deploy resources to conduct research on the big problems in such a way as to contribute to collective well-being.
Australian universities are at a crossroads. On the one hand, the impending upheaval in the higher education sector threatens institutions and academic disciplines alike, and causes great anxiety. On the other hand, society has an unprecedented need for outstanding research and teaching to solve the grand challenges of our time – research and teaching that, traditionally, universities have been expected to deliver.
This is a time for Australian universities to harness their strengths. They should move centre-stage in the pursuit of our grand challenges and become the arenas where grand challenges are sought and attacked. Solving the grand challenges should be the new mission of our universities.
But Australian universities will have to change the way they think about doing research. Today, there are essentially two approaches to research. One is curiosity-driven where research
questions are determined by the curiosity of the individual researcher. It is based on the premise that the scientific discovery process is essentially unpredictable. We stumble upon discoveries. And our findings will trickle down serendipitously through society and at some stage find their applications. A large part of today’s academic research is curiosity-driven.
The other approach to research is mission-driven. Here, the research effort is organized around missions – grand challenges – that are important to science and to society. In order to achieve our grand challenges, we will need a larger part of our research effort to be mission-driven. In a recent article in the Griffith Review, we advocate that universities embrace a mission-driven model of research, while at the same time keeping the high standards of scientific enquiry developed within academic disciplines.
We argue that an integral aspect of any mission-driven model is the integration of research efforts across disciplines in a way that is best suited to achieve a research goal – the grand challenges. We call the latter ‘vertical integration’, as opposed to ‘horizontal integration’, integration of research within a specific academic discipline.
Identifying grand challenges and letting them drive enquiry – mission-driven research –, in combination with vertical integration, can have tremendous advantages. It organizes the research effort in a way that best suits the achievement of goals important to society, our grand challenges. It will lead to the creation of multidisciplinary teams of researchers and encourage collaborations beyond the boundaries of disciplines and institutions. It may also bring new expertise to bear on important problems.
The impending changes in the Australian higher education sector may be perceived as a threat. But the ‘quiet revolution’, as Glyn Davis, Vice Chancellor of The University of Melbourne calls it, is also a huge opportunity – not only for universities, but for all of society.
Strikingly, the White House has been – so far – open minded about what the grand challenges should actually be. This is important. Defining the challenges will take time. But setting out the idea is important. Researchers need to be thinking on the right scale – what is the big thing, that really matters to the wider world, they are trying to achieve? What are the pressing problems of society they are desperate to solve? What are their grand challenges?
John Armstrong is Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice Chancellor at The University of Melbourne. Carsten Murawski is Lecturer in the Department of Finance at The University of Melbourne. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of The University of Melbourne. This opinion piece was published in the Australian on the 16th June.