Memo to strategists: time to stop overpromising

In 1668, Thomas Hobbes wrote scientia potentia est – knowledge is power.

If one keeps reading, what he said was – scientia potentia est, sed parva – knowledge is a power, but a small one. I’d say that knowledge is a slow power. But provided you hold your nerve, accumulated learning will generate impact, for individuals, institutions, and for societies.

I love Oxford’s mission statement “The advancement of learning by teaching and research, and its dissemination by every means”. It’s all about learning.

Staff learn new things by getting up to speed in their disciplines (by scholarship), and/or by creating new knowledge through research. Students learn via being taught by staff. They also get on top of their disciplines by self-directed learning, and they learn from peers. Many students also learn by doing research.

We should have the confidence to concentrate on learning – via the double helix of teaching and research.

But shouldn’t we have a third helix that celebrates our direct service to society?

Not if impacts flow from the double helix. The idea of adding direct implementation is problematic because universities are neither structured nor funded to do implementation. Only research and teaching are within our power and remit.

So how do we demonstrate our value?

We do this by explaining that we are striving to learn about topics that are important to society, and by engaging relentlessly to share learnings. But, tempting as it is, we must not lose patience and try to lead in implementation.

Think of the COVID vaccines. Vast vaults of knowledge underpinned efforts to make a range of vaccines. Scientists, trained at universities, used their learnings to create protein, RNA, and DNA vaccines. The RNA vaccines were particularly successful. I love the fact they used beta globin messenger RNA leader and tail sequences, so were based on a gene I have studied for decades. Curiosity driven research on a globin gene, decades later, contributed to making a highly effective RNA that rescued us from a pandemic.

By sharing knowledge across the years and beyond their campuses, universities saved lives.

But note that our role in implementing vaccine delivery was modest. Implementation required biotech companies, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, public health professionals, and people with genius in logistics, and communications. Universities educated many of these people, and existing academics shared insights, but direct implementation was done by partnering with professionals, and was not led by universities.

As the cost of research and teaching increases, and since universities rely heavily on taxpayer dollars, it is tempting to curry favour by boasting, and framing ourselves as the solvers of the world’s problems. But we mostly make indirect contributions, via sharing learnings, rather than by implementing solutions.

The best impact narratives are based around working on the most important problems, partnering, and sharing knowledge, not on implementing fixes.

Each university needs to have an engagement strategy to connect with stakeholders: health professionals, with government and industries, and with individuals and agencies who are implementers.

I am a strong supporter of The Conversation, the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC), and UNSW Press, because these bodies share expert knowledge widely, so enable disseminating knowledge by every means. In days where commercial media is challenged, these operations are increasingly important.

I am also a supporter of the communications and impact teams in my university, and our external advisory committees, because these work tirelessly to connect people and to promote learnings that emerge via research and teaching.

And I applaud whenever our academics reach out and share learnings from their own work, or when people from the community connect with us.

But I worry universities go too far when they pledge to fix the United Nations Strategic Development Goals (SDGs). Obviously, all our work can be bureaucratically mapped to one SDG or another. But SDGs are not research questions. We uncover knowledge relevant to ‘poverty’, ‘hunger’, ‘water’, ‘equality’, and ‘health’. But no researcher investigates such broad topics. And we teach knowledge and methodologies in structured curricula, not generalities.

Suggesting that the SDGs, rather than learning or our students, are our priorities is counter to our core mission. It undermines our efforts in research (especially in fundamental research) and diminishes our contributions to driving personal growth through discipline specific teaching.

It also disappoints stakeholders when we fail to demonstrate progress.

We cannot fail when it comes to learning.

Knowledge leads to impact because scientia potentia est.

The more universities stray from our core purpose of learning, the more we are forced to promise quick fixes and to overhype breakthroughs. This alienates our academics and all serious people, who believe in deep learning.

We just need to engage with organisations built for implementation, and not to over-promise and suggest that we are the Thunderbirds, standing ready to save the world directly.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW.



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