Addressing the mega challenges in a changing world

Our future depends on our capacity to harness the breadth of research shaping the agenda for sustainability

UOW has formed strong international and domestic institutional research collaborations to tackle serious issues impacting our global population, according to Professor Paul Wellings CBE, Vice-Chancellor.

Towards the end of her 1962 publication “Silent Spring” Rachel Carson wrote: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork in the road – the one ‘less travelled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth”.

Carson’s book, “Silent Spring”, was a significant critique of the large scale use of pesticides with major unintended impacts. Almost immediately, it generated an international outcry and a very rapid policy response.

Six decades on we find ourselves back at a point where major choices will influence our longer term wellbeing and global sustainability. This time we have more complex suite of mega challenges to deal with. We live at a time when our media provides a running commentary on major issues such as energy prices, climate change, access to clean water, food security, clean manufacturing, antibiotic resistance, ageing and population growth; just to name a few. Many of these issues are extraordinarily complex and intersect across disciplinary boundaries. Simple solutions are not likely to be found. And, as Carson observed, the options for new policy are not equally fair.

Here at UOW we have set out to conduct research which might help address some of these problems. Our Global Challenges program has focussed on three areas: Sustainability in the Coastal and Marine Zones, Innovation in Manufacturing and Living Well Longer. This work, along with many other projects across the University, has made an important contribution. This year, for the first time, the Times Higher Education magazine set out to evaluate the contribution that universities make towards the UN Global Sustainable Development Goals. UOW’s efforts were ranked 13th in the world, out of about 500 universities considered in this exercise. This is a considerable achievement and one that reflects well on our long-term strategy to do great research with an eye to its application, and to work on change that matters.

In the attempt to have an even greater influence and impact, UOW has begun to elaborate on its approach to collaborating with other universities. From our foundation we have always welcomed international students and many of our students have spent time on overseas exchange. Academic colleagues have built links between our laboratories and elsewhere. This has helped shape our research and created opportunities for research students to gain insight into new techniques being developed around the world.

What is new is our approach to creating deep strategic partnerships. We have done this in two ways. Here in NSW we have linked up with the Universities of New South Wales and Newcastle to create the NUW Alliance. This grouping is focussed on major issues which have been identified at priorities for the NSW Government.

Internationally, we have joined up with the University of Surrey, the University of Sao Paolo and North Carolina State University to form the University Global Partnership Network (UGPN). This network has the capacity to create multidisciplinary teams and to focus their efforts on major problems.

These sorts of initiatives are deliberate attempts to create large teams of researchers across institutional boundaries to work on mega challenges at a scale beyond our normal capacity. A good example of this is the efforts the NUW Alliance is making, along with Western Sydney University, to conceptualise the type of research and training that will need to be associated with the Aerotropolis at Sydney’s new Western Airport. This will be a major 21st Century piece of infrastructure that will require sustainability issues to be built into its operations from the outset.

Here in Wollongong we are witnessing a shift in the economy as our traditions in steel and coal now coexist with the health, professional and education services sectors. New and emerging sectors including technology, data analytics, medical devices, retirement living services, and energy utilisation and storage; all driven by ideas arising from the University’s research activities.

Regional economies in Australia and in many other countries are experiencing a major period of reinvention. The challenge for universities, such as UOW, is to train graduates with the skills needed in the modern workforce. At the same time, we have to help drive the creation of new industries and new jobs while making sure that the environmental footprint of these endeavours is minimised to meet contemporary expectations.

Our future depends on our capacity to harness the breadth of research shaping the agenda for sustainability and to do this, at scale, in collaboration with public and private sectors partners.