The knowledge custodians: University science supports a living ecosystem of knowledge.

September 25, 2023

University science is underpinned by hundreds of years of discovery, shared knowledge, and an atmosphere of learning.

Look up from this article and fasten your eyes on something in the room, or out your window. Undoubtedly, you’ll see something that science contributed to or can explain, such as the health of your body or the technology you’re using. Why the sky is blue, how the vastness of geologic time created the landscape out your window, the chemistry that underpins the molecular makeup of the items in your room — science is behind all the answers.

The vast majority of basic and strategic science is carried out within universities. And it draws on hundreds of years of discovery, shared knowledge, and an atmosphere of learning. This is what underpins university science. In Australia, most basic research is undertaken in universities, says the University of Queensland’s Provost and Senior Vice-President, Professor Aidan Byrne. 

“This is unique globally,” Byrne says. “The poster child for Australian science research at the moment is quantum science. Unlike with optical and radioastronomy, which developed thanks to our Southern Hemisphere location and dark sky, there is no reason for Australia to lead in quantum science. It happened thanks to decades of investment in higher education research.”  

Information exchange

“Science is fundamental to society. What scientists do, firstly, is education of students at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels,” says Frank Larkins, Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. “The scaffold of research, the foundations, are what science and related faculties establish. Medical sciences and engineering build on the fundamental scientific breakthroughs from chemistry, physics and mathematics, supported by the biosciences and computer science.”

Creating a great environment for research — and knowledge sharing — plus mechanisms that ensure good people can draw on that knowledge to the benefit of society is university science’s challenge.

“A successful science faculty at an Australian university has to think about the pathways to different degrees and professions. It doesn’t mean graduates don’t become scientists, they do — but not everyone will do a science PhD,”  says Professor Margaret Sheil AO, Vice-Chancellor and president of QUT. However the skills of science graduates benefit society as a whole, she adds.

The bleeding edge

Universities have a capacity that no other organisation has, adds Larkin.

“A university does applied research but has a much greater breadth. And the fundamental product is quality people.”

Edwina Cornish AO, former Monash Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Provost and Senior Vice-President, says “You recruit good people, and they know what’s needed to keep the best researchers at the bleeding edge.” Then it’s a case of finding ways to “turbo charge” early-career researchers, Cornish adds, particularly in areas where there is an opportunity to be
globally competitive.

Bringing everyone together helps, Larkin says. “You walk across the campus and run into someone from engineering, medical, or another science and ask, ‘What are you working on?’, and sometimes that stimulates an idea for further fundamental research. The rich interactive dynamic that occurs, if it is nurtured properly, is a university’s greatest strength.” 

Written by Heather Catchpole

First published in Australian University Science, Issue 10 2023

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