Universities tell charred Australia: ‘We’re here to help’

Don’t overlook universities’ warnings or their contribution to disaster prevention and mitigation, representative body tells government

February 25, 2020
bushfire wildfire fire crisis disaster kangaroo
Source: iStock

Australian universities will sign off on “this summer of sorrows” by demanding to be taken seriously on climate change, with decades of scientific warnings now proving “unerringly accurate “.

In a speech to the National Press Club on 26 February, Universities Australia chair Deborah Terry will peddle the power of academia to help the world understand disasters like Australia’s summer bushfire crisis and find ways of mitigating their effects.

Professor Terry will use the Press Club address − a regular fixture of the Universities Australia annual conference, now underway in Canberra − to highlight the benefits of university expertise and to stress the danger of ignoring it.

“Something is changing,” Professor Terry was due to say. “That’s not just the lived experience of everyday Australians over this longest of summers. It’s also the evidence-based warning of our most informed experts.

“To the government and parliament, we say: We’re here to help. The expertise of our university research community is a resource for the nation. And we want you to tap into that resource.”

The speech warns that the big challenges facing humanity are at an “alarming juncture”, as Australia wrestles with the escalating threat from the coronavirus epidemic and the after-effects of “the most terrifying bushfire season in living memory”.

Professor Terry will point to university-generated advances such as a free air quality app, efforts to fast track a coronavirus vaccine and modelling of the disease’s likely spread.

The speech says that university researchers are turning their attention to tasks such as safeguarding drinking water from contamination by bushfire debris and helping ecosystems recover from the incineration of a billion native animals.

It also highlights the role played by university staff and campuses during the bushfire crisis, including sheltering evacuees and contributing to the emergency response. “It was a powerful reminder that our universities aren’t just connected to our wider communities − we are our communities,” Professor Terry was due to say.

But communities ignore university expertise at their peril, given that “dangerous megafires of unprecedented ferocity” were predicted 12 years ago by University of Melbourne economist Ross Garnaut. He has since warned that Australia faces double the temperature increase that helped cause the bushfire crisis of the past six months. “These challenges are among some of the biggest that humanity has ever had to face,” Professor Terry will say.

Universities Australia will also release new modelling suggesting that businesses recoup 447 per cent of their investment when they undertake joint research with university partners.

The modelling, by consultants Ernst & Young, shows that the number of Australian businesses working with universities rose by 5 per cent in two years to reach almost 17,000 last financial year. The companies shared a total direct benefit of A$12.8 billion (£6.5 billion), averaging out at about A$760,000 each.

“These collaborations aren’t about charity or philanthropy,” Professor Terry said in a media statement. “There’s a clear-eyed business case and a demonstrated return on investment to firms that partner with universities.”

Universities Australia will use the conference to launch a video campaign portraying case studies of industry-university collaboration. The first depicts a handheld infrared scanner developed by Central Queensland University with local mango growers.

The device counts mangoes, assesses their ripeness and predicts optimum picking time. This alerts farmers when to recruit pickers and pre-order boxes and helps ensure the fruit’s freshness.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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