Russell Group Deputy Vice-Chancellors’/Provost Network Meeting
University of Exeter, United Kingdom (delivered via Zoom)
My warmest greetings to all of you at the Exeter Autumn Russell Group Deputy Vice-Chancellors’ and Provosts’ Strategy meeting. I’m speaking to you from the University of British Columbia here in beautiful Vancouver.
I understand that Exeter is also a beautiful city, dating back to pre-Roman times and with a spectacular gothic cathedral. One other thing we do have in common, by the way, is that we both get more than our fair share of rain! And UBC too has a unique heritage as the university sits on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Coast Salish people, the Musqueam, the Squamish and the Tsleil Waututh nations who have lived on their traditional lands for around 15,000 years. I will be speaking more about these communities later.
I don’t think I can cover ‘the global future of research-intensive universities’ in 10-15 minutes but I can give you a Canadian and a UBC perspective on where we think we are headed.
Compared to the UK, we in Canada have been sailing in relatively calm political waters in recent years – we do not have the dramatic backdrop of Brexit behind every conversation – but COVID of, course more than makes up for that.
It is hard for us at this point to see past the ‘black swan’ event that is COVID, but I believe we can explore some of the enduring factors that may shape the future of research-intensive universities across the globe.
The Canadian equivalent of the Russell Group is called the U15 – as the name suggests, it encompasses the top 15 research universities in Canada such as UBC, McGill and the University of Toronto. The vision of this group, articulated in its 2015 statement, is to make Canada ‘the most innovative country in the world by 2030’, as a means of maintaining and growing prosperity.
The Canadian U15 identifies that the key building blocks to achieve this are:
- a better-educated and adaptable workforce
- world-class educational institutions
- greater immigration of highly mobile top professionals, scholars, researchers and students
These factors help to produce:
- fast-growing new and innovative companies which create high-quality jobs;
- a vibrant research environment that includes government, academia, the private sector and the social sector
- a social sector that works in partnership with academia and industry to create a culture of social entrepreneurship and creativity
We all share common issues: the reliability of sustainable research monies from governments, granting agencies, the private sector, foundations and other sources. Tied to this is the political will of governments to allocate sufficient resources to research that may or may not provide an immediately traceable outcome.
Even as access to education accelerates, there is still a political undertow that mistrusts ‘elites’, experts, scientists, epidemiologists and even legitimately-elected governments. A vivid and current example of this disconnect is the phenomenal speed of the development and distribution of COVID vaccines which would typically be a source for celebration – only to have a significant number of the population prefer to believe conspiracy theories over the evidence of their eyes.
So, it is all the more important for us as research-intensive universities to show the positive impacts research and innovation have on our societies.
For example, millions of people have received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, but what many may not realize is that a key element of the injection, the drug delivery platform, can be traced back to fundamental research at UBC that began in the late 1970s.
Acuitas Therapeutics, a UBC spin-off company co-founded by UBC’s Dr. Pieter Cullis, contributes to the lipid formulations that allows the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine to enter human cells.
More specifically focused on the global role of research, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development(UNRISD) has also identified some key goals for the future which underscore the importance of our effort to demonstrate the social and economic impact of our research and scholarship:
- Identifying knowledge-capacity gaps regarding the social dimensions of sustainable development
- Supporting integrated approaches with interdisciplinary evidence and knowledge products
- Partnering with other networks and capacity development partners to provide a platform for research uptake
- Building a network on a new eco-social contract that connects policy makers, researchers and activists across the globe
It is easy to see that there is a considerable intersection between these global goals and those of both the U15 and the Russell Group. Yet both of our groups tend to be country-specific in their language, presumably in order to protect their home-based research enterprises. This is understandable and probably inevitable, yet it might be instructive to share our perspective at UBC and in North America.
UBC’s location in a corridor of innovation anchored by universities and industry across the Pacific Northwest is a crucial underpinning. UBC and the University of Washington based in Seattle are natural partners, close and complementary – with a combined research spending of over $2 billion. The Cascadia initiative, a collaboration between UBC, the University of Washington and Microsoft, is an example of our collective capacity for discovery and impact.
Integrating approaches from the social and computational sciences, this partnership seeks to address chronic urban challenges ranging from homelessness to traffic congestion. Recently, the urgent issues around wildfires and ‘urban smoke’ brought together universities and other partners from the province of BC, and the states of Washington and Oregon to look at how research can inform a regional Cascadia response to these high priority concerns.
Partnerships like these elevate the contributions of research-intensive institutions far beyond what they could accomplish alone. There is a compelling need for research-intensive universities to be global centres of innovation, partnering together to share knowledge that increases our impact. We need to get better at talking to each other on a global level if we are to make our planet a better place.
In a world characterized by complex societal challenges and heightened public expectations, broad-based innovation is imperative. Research-intensive universities across the globe must embrace creativity and risk-taking across all their activities. This spirit of innovation needs to extend to how public universities operate and steward their resources.
Universities like ours need to be fuelled by an expanding network of support for entrepreneurship within the university at campus and faculty levels.
Going forward, we must ensure that our efforts in innovation remain purposeful, connected and enduring. They must extend across all our learning, research and operations activities. And they must support constructive engagement with partners beyond the academy.
By enabling multiple ‘Research to Innovation’ pathways, we can help take new knowledge generated from research through to socio-economic impact, in ways such as commercialization through licensing and patenting.
For example, UBC technologies are at the heart of products, services and treatments that have generated an estimated $11.5 billion in sales, and have formed the basis of 235 spin-off companies. Since 2013, UBC has offered support for new private sector venture creation by students, faculty and staff through an incubator called entrepreneurship@UBC.
Many of these endeavours are already having an impact, including Acuva, an easy and low-footprint water-disinfection treatment based on light-emitting diodes.
Knowledge exchange pathways that translate research results into policies and practices also exist across the university. At the intersection of research, learning and engagement, these pathways extend the impact research-intensive universities can have.
And a truly interdisciplinary approach is crucial – big problems demand multiple perspectives. Many of these elements will be familiar to you and I am sure you are putting in place your own unique plans too.
When Canada’s U15 document I mentioned earlier was released in 2015 it was pre-COVID, pre-President Trump, pre-Brexit from your perspective, and before the fires and floods that have ravaged the planet more than ever in recent years.
Also since 2015, sadly and shamefully, we in Canada have only just begun to meaningfully absorb the devastating experiences of our Indigenous peoples, highlighted by the recent discovery of the bodies of hundreds of Indigenous children in unmarked graves at the so-called ‘Indian Residential Schools’, including some here in BC. The last of these Canadian Residential Schools closed in 1996.
So, when we talk of innovation for prosperity – a worthy goal though that may be – we need to remember the real challenges that face our planet: the treatment of Indigenous peoples across the globe, the need to develop sustainable economies and, of course, the urgent action to needed to combat climate change.
The imminent challenges of how we steward our planet and its peoples will define all our futures. Global partnerships between research-intensive universities to address these three key issues could make a major difference in how we go forward.
Organisations like the Russell Group and the U15 Canadian universities, together with their equivalent bodies worldwide, could play a major part in formally growing the connective tissue of collaboration between universities, institutions, and national and global entities – a collaboration that could help implement research that leads to better policies and practices, that in turn lead to effective change.