Join hands, reach further

Earth's problems know no borders, observes Feridun Hamdullahpur, and research efforts must be collaborative and global to tackle them

July 5, 2012

Global research is vaulting into the 21st century with unprecedented speed, range and power. Driving the international research agenda is no single organising principle, but a thriving web of social and economic factors now more proximate to the idea of a "global consciousness" than ever before.

The demand for research and innovation comes from economies at all stages of development - from Asia to Africa to Latin America - and with the full range of economic, industrial, social and academic motivations.

The new economies that are seen as a challenge to the entrenched model of Western dominance are the same ones that are positioned to upend the traditional balance of higher education, which until now has been defined by North American and European ascendancy. International competition for the best faculty and research talent will accelerate just as competition for resources and markets has.

The supply of global research and innovation, which until recently was largely in the hands of powerful North American and European players, is now diffusing widely and at the rapid speed afforded by communication technology.

How are universities to respond?

First, by extending their global reach through collaboration. This would be accomplished by embracing a collaborative approach at all levels: connecting students and researchers across disciplines on our campuses, forging new links between our institutions and the communities that surround them, and seeking opportunities for transdisciplinary and multilateral initiatives abroad. Universities must realise that the problems faced by humanity have no borders, and neither should the solutions.

Second, universities must focus on areas of global impact. Higher education institutions that aspire to global status, reach and presence will rise or fall on their ability to bring global solutions to global challenges. And these challenges - including the development and management of economies, energy and food-demand not only collaboration that transcends borders, disciplines and narrow self-interest but also a commitment of attention and resources from research powerhouses.

To give an example, the University of Waterloo has taken this to heart in the area of water research. We consider this an urgent institutional priority not merely because it is important to southern Ontario, where we are located, but because of its importance to the welfare of the whole world. Global water demand is set to significantly outstrip supply by 2030 - we are looking at a shortage in the order of 40 per cent. Discoveries we make in water resource management and groundwater purification, whether in the 6,800 sq km Grand River watershed in our backyard or in the Athabasca oil sands in Canada's Alberta province, are designed for export, like the Waterloo Pump - a simple solution to a life-threatening problem in many parts of the developed world which, decades after its invention, is still helping millions in Africa and Asia maintain an accessible water supply.

Third, universities must lower the barriers to the mobility of ideas. Reducing roadblocks to commercialisation is critical as universities strive to maintain their leadership position in an increasingly complex world where, for the first time, the next big breakthrough could come from anywhere. Institutions should encourage the seamless transfer of ideas from the research lab and lecture hall to the marketplace because we recognise that innovation feeds productivity, which fuels the creation of wealth and economic growth. At Waterloo, we've moved this agenda forward through our "creator-owns" intellectual property policy. By empowering our innovators to freely develop their ideas - and reap the rewards - we've fostered an environment that encourages inventors to invent and investors to invest.

University-based research must assume a leadership position in addressing these issues for the good of the global commonwealth. This year marks the start of the Association of Commonwealth Universities' centenary celebrations and, throughout its 100 years of service to the academic community, that has always been part of the ACU's mandate - to position post-secondary education institutions for success. The ACU's role in fostering "collaboration between developed and developing universities" is an excellent model not only for the Commonwealth of Nations but also for the entire world.

This is the 21st-century challenge of researchers and educators: to globalise our thought, our research and our academic citizenship. Let this centennial anniversary renew our commitment to that challenge.

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