Academics want interdisciplinary approach to shaping policy

Universities should rethink their role as a ‘neutral but powerful force’ in times of crisis, summit hears

April 21, 2021
Colourful coronavirus masks in the garden hung up on a washing line
Source: iStock

Academics could be a unique force in fighting crises, but only if they rethink their roles in engaging with policymakers, public health and infectious disease experts from the Association of Pacific Rim Universities told the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit.

Timothy Brewer, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, saw three main roles for higher education institutions: educating students in a complex world; conducting research for evidence-based policymaking; and undertaking service to the community.

“No other institution can fill that role,” he said, but added a caveat. “Universities are extremely conservative. We need to be much more agile.”

The key to achieving these goals was the facilitation of “international collaborations in an era of rising nationalism”, Professor Brewer said, adding that this was especially important as the world battled a pandemic.

“If we don’t take care of Brazil, we can’t take care of the US,” he said.

Mu Li, a professor of international public health at the University of Sydney, agreed that academics needed to look past national borders.

“If we do not tackle Covid globally, we will have lockdowns for a very long time,” she said from Australia, which has blocked the entry of international students for nearly a year.

Yik-Ying Teo, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said “the ability, or inability, for jurisdictions or countries to respond effectively and successfully in a crisis is dependent on decisions taken in the past, or what I call ‘peacetime’. And that is where I see the role of academics – to provide science and evidence for policymaking.

“We need to rethink our roles,” he continued. “We have the unique opportunity to convene the right people – governments, the private sector and NGOs – to discuss policy and bring together stakeholders.”

He stressed that a multidisciplinary approach was vital. “Science needs to go beyond technology or data,” he said. “It’s social science that tells us how policy is driven by culture or economics.”

Zhijie Zheng, chair of the department of global health at Peking University, said “the pandemic exposed many issues” that could be solved only with cooperation with other disciplines, such as economics and international relations.

This thinking was the impetus for Peking University’s opening a multidisciplinary Institute for Global Health and Development at the end of 2020.

“Medical research itself will not work,” Professor Zheng said.

Professor Brewer, citing the proliferation of erroneous Covid news online, said scientific evidence alone was not enough to move governments and a public hungry for reliable information.

“Social science has shown that merely providing correct information is not efficient,” he said.

He has been involved in UCLA outreach programmes, including holding town hall meetings with the public, who can ask questions about how Covid affects their daily lives.

Professor Zheng in Beijing said his institution produced materials for schools and workplaces, as well as providing training for journalists. “They are at the front lines of imparting information to the public,” he said.

Meanwhile, Professor Li in Sydney said that a Covid website, originally meant for the university community, ended up being a resource for the public. “The community sees universities as a source of truth,” she said.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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