Research for the future of Australia

How do we conduct research on the big problems so we can contribute to collective well-being? Ed Salkeld

WHAT IS AUSTRALIA FOR? Australia is no longer small, remote or isolated. It’s time to ask What Is Australia For?, and to acknowledge the wealth of resources we have beyond mining. Over the next two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, is publishing a series of provocations. Our authors are asking the big questions to encourage a robust national discussion about a new Australian identity that reflects our national, regional and global roles.

For centuries, the frontier of human knowledge has expanded through academic research. But despite large strides in the advancement of knowledge, great challenges still lie before our world, our society and our communities.

At the grandest level, we do not know how to make societies that are stable, prosperous and just; we do not know how to build cities that are beautiful and convenient; we do not know how to ensure good relationships; we do not know how to use technology to make ourselves wiser, rather than merely busier; we do not know how to bring out the best in everyone. True, these are vast aspirations for knowledge – but isn’t it beholden on universities to respond effectively to these and other challenges that face us?

Traditionally, universities have played a major role in research and innovation, particularly in basic research. In our world, universities are the single biggest concentration of research activity and the only institutions that undertake research in all its relevant aspects. 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.

The crucial issue for universities is how to hold together both the natural (if often inarticulate) aspiration towards the most important knowledge and its role as a place where that knowledge is sought.

This is the key question. How should we undertake research to create the kind of valuable knowledge that is needed, and bring it powerfully to effect in the world?

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 organised around missions that are important to science and to society – our grand challenges.

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.

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. We call the latter “vertical integration”, as opposed to “horizontal integration”, integration of research within a specific academic discipline.

Mission-driven research, in combination with vertical integration, can have tremendous advantages. It organises the research effort in a way that best achieves the goals important to society. 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.

But ideally integration of universities with the rest of society would not just happen in research. We need (for example) businesses to tell the teaching staff of universities the skill sets they need graduates to have. And we need educators to prepare students better for their lives outside of university.

So what to do? A good starting point is to consider an aptitude or skill which (if widely enough dispersed) could increase our chances of succeeding in one of the headline grand challenges.

For instance, we are in general not very good at making decisions which reflect our longer-term well-being. And this cognitive weakness undermines almost all collective effort to address our real needs. So a major task for higher education would be to work how to improve this capacity across whole societies. But the task is not merely theoretical: it is practical – you need to actually do it.

Such an undertaking expands rapidly not only across disciplines (can art, for instance, instill prudence – as Poussin claimed?) but into the business world – where some of the largest commercial entities like pension funds and insurance companies have a deep interest in promoting prudent behaviour. And, of course, this is in alignment with the conditions for successful democracies, in which the passions and rhetoric of the day win out against the long-term project of creating a civilised society.

Or consider the capacity to form stable and satisfying long-term relationships. This capacity is poorly distributed and the consequences (at present) are vast and unfortunate. It may be that we understand quite a lot about how good relationships are established and maintained, but this knowledge is mostly inert. We don’t know how to make this ability normal and pervasive in the western world.

But it may well be that improving the quality of our relationships is an important factor in tackling many other huge issues: the funding of retirement, the improvement of early years education, age care, the quality of mental health.

The point is to see how integrated these great tasks are. And that the ideal of an integrated response provides universities with a massive opportunity – although growing into these opportunities may involve some awkward transitions.

It may well be – for instance – that it is only through much deeper and more intelligent relations with commerce that it is actually possible to harness the resources necessary for the task. And that is a hard thought for universities to address. The vertical integration of research is an ideal founded on devotion to the common good; it harnesses commerce not because it is commercially minded – but commerce is such an elemental feature of how the world works that it plays an inevitable part in addressing our grandest challenges.

Read more provocations at The Conversation and at Griffith REVIEW.