Societal Challenges

Universities are typically long established institutions, and consequently have developed an unique  culture over decades or even centuries.  As part of that culture, we have historically organised ourselves into disciplinary ‘silos’, at the level of schools or departments, faculties, and sometimes even institutions. This presents some challenges now that the external focus has switched from the ‘supply side’ (what we are good at) to the ‘demand side’ (what we are good for). With regard to the latter, many universities, including NU, have positioned themselves to address one or more so-called ‘Societal Challenges’ – worldly problems that need urgent solutions. These problems are potentially so large that they require a multidisciplinary approach to solve them, involving large teams of investigators – and even then a single university can only hope to solve part of the problem. This challenges the historic notion of unique disciplines, and universities are having to adapt to this changing landscape – how exactly?

One approach can be illustrated in the diagram below. The red disks at the bottom of the diagram represent conventional disciplines (such as ‘Chemistry’, ‘English’, ‘Mathematics’ etc.). We must be sure that we engender the necessary excellence in all of these, which is  an important part of Vision 2021. Disparate disciplines are then brought together, often organically, in research centres. These will typically comprise a relatively small group of investigators who have come together to work on  a particular problem. Centres in turn combine (and are then often referred to as ‘themes’) to create Institutes, whose principal role is to address a particular Societal Challenge – for example in SAgE we have NIReS, which addresses Sustainability.

Thinking about the organisation of our activities in this way  has compelling advantages. For example, it creates a continuum between pure research, innovation, and enterprise & knowledge transfer. Furthermore , it illustrates the relationship between research and learning and teaching (L&T) at undergraduate (UG), postgraduate taught (PGT) and postgraduate research (PGR) level. Finally, engagement appears as a continuous thread throughout all of our activities.

Importantly, the bringing together of traditionally disparate disciplines enables us to exploit new interfaces between them, which can provide growth in research activity.  We must however be careful not to disenfranchise those who are very successful working within the bounds of traditional disciplines. These are not static and we need to maintain momentum, excellence and status in such areas as well. However, the focus of many research funders is now firmly around the purple circles in the diagram, so we must organise ourselves effectively to compete in this arena.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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