‘Critical’ role for universities on ‘transnational challenges’

Sir Jeremy Farrar delivers Royal Society’s annual Science and Civilisation lecture

November 25, 2022
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Universities will play a “critical role” in addressing some of the transnational challenges the world faces in the 21st century, the director of the Wellcome Trust has said.

Sir Jeremy Farrar also said higher education institutions are at the “heart of the enlightenment process” and core to any “levelling-up agenda” around the world.

Sir Jeremy was speaking at the Royal Society, where he delivered the ninth annual lecture in the “Science and Civilisation” series.

An attendee of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), he was a key figure in the UK science advisory system during the Covid-19 pandemic, and also in the World Health Organisation.

He described the “four circles” of disruption that the coronavirus pandemic caused across the world – the direct health consequences, their knock-on effects on healthcare, the impact on economics and society, and, finally, on geopolitics and national politics.

However, Sir Jeremy warned that pandemics are just one of a huge number of transnational challenges that the world is currently facing in confluence – including war, economic migration, multiple financial crises, inequality and the climate emergency.

As a result, we are living through a “very dark” moment in history, which comes at a time of increasing mistrust in institutions.

“There is a growing gap between scientists and society,” he said. “Science is going at such a pace now that the ability of society, diplomats, politicians, the media, my mother, my father – whatever it is – to understand where that science is going is diverging, I think, because to keep up with it is so challenging, even for those of us in the world of science.”

Universities – and the broader higher education sector – are already very good at combating these transnational issues, he said.

“Universities are at the heart of enlightenment, progress. I also believe in this country and around the world, they’re at the heart of this so-called levelling-up agenda,” he said.

“The opportunities we get from whatever background we came from in universities is crucial, and all universities play a role not just in their local communities, which is critical, but also in playing a role in making the case that the challenges of the 21st century are transnational.”

The lecture series, which was launched by the Council for At-Risk Academics, takes its name from a lecture given by Albert Einstein in October 1933 at the Royal Albert Hall, at a major fundraising event to help those being expelled from Germany by the Nazis.


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