Queensland chancellor: don’t let past sins veto research deals

Importance of governance frameworks elevated, as ‘public or perish’ gives way to ‘partner or perish’

December 1, 2019
University of Queensland

Universities should not automatically rule out research collaborations with companies whose past deeds have been ethically questionable, a Melbourne forum has heard.

University of Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese said that research partnerships with any organisation, public or private, should hinge on the safeguarding of academic freedom and the specific benefits of collaborative research proposals.

“There are going to be industry partners that we might contemplate a relationship with whose history is not going to be completely unblemished,” Mr Varghese told the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency conference. “That’s the nature of the world.”

He said that universities should not compromise on “fundamentals” such as university autonomy and avoiding partners who wanted predetermined research outcomes. “The key thing is…how we ensure that we respect those fundamental principles and, importantly, the broader contribution that research project will make to society,” Mr Varghese said.

“If we’re clear-eyed in the way we go about all of that, we should end up with a partnership that is helpful to research and which has enough of an ethical framework around it.”

In a keynote address to the conference, Mr Varghese had outlined Queensland’s partnerships with aerospace manufacturer Boeing, engineering company Siemens and chemical giant Dow. “Dow wants to get on the front foot with projects and technology that fight climate change,” he said.

Queensland University of Technology Guild president Vinnie Batten told the conference that while Dow’s climate change research was “progressive”, the company had blotted its copybook by producing the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. This raised a wider question over universities’ responsibility to “scrutinise the societal ethics of our partners”.

“How [does] that weigh up against the greater good, allowing us to maintain the standards of our moral code while we’re pushing the world forward?” Mr Batten asked.

Mr Varghese said the question highlighted the importance of universities’ governance frameworks. He said budget pressures – notably, A$328 million (£172 million) in cuts to research funding in last year’s mini-budget – had “sharpened the incentive” for Australian universities to form stronger partnerships and “do more on philanthropy”.

“The old academic adage, publish or perish, has rapidly been replaced by partner or perish,” he said.

Mr Varghese said that Queensland’s alliance with the controversial Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation was an exemplar partnership. “[It] will gift more than $50 million to UQ to fund 150 undergraduate scholarships and new courses to begin next year…a level of philanthropic support rarely seen for the humanities in Australia,” he said.

“Our agreement guarantees the university’s policies of autonomy over curriculum, academic appointments, academic freedom and governance arrangements.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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