During the first part of 2020, many of our socio-economic endeavours have come to a screeching halt.
This includes the vast majority of our world-class researchers and institutions suddenly finding themselves unable to conduct experiments, collect data, or create new innovations.
Of course, it’s been a great time to catch up on some paper-writing, when time allows between online teaching commitments. This has come at an equity cost, however, with journals reporting a significant and disproportionate increase in article submissions from male researchers compared with their female counterparts. I’ll come back to this point.
Sadly, universities are finding themselves caught in an unpleasant situation. They are neither business entities (eligible for the Government’s business support and stimulus measures), nor public service entities (with protected budgets from the public purse). All this despite representing Australia’s 3rd largest export sector (after iron ore and coal).
While I’m sure that universities all around the world are facing similar fiscal challenges (and indeed, many are facing complete ruin), as a nation we need to be asking ourselves how we can best ensure that our world class institutions and their talent can be harnessed to ensure that our national recovery is robust and is adapted to prosper in the new global paradigms that are being created in real-time (everything from business transition, to public preparedness, to civil unrest, to geopolitical trade, to the very nature of democracy).
I won’t stoop to talking about money as the solution. Of course, governments and universities are going to have to make some very challenging decisions as to how they deploy public funds.
Instead, I’d like to talk about capital raising.
No. I don’t mean listing public universities on the stock exchange. Nor am I talking about the need to invest in skills – which our government already recognises.
I’m talking about human trust capital.
In the wake of Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, a number of Australian universities actively pursued talent recruitment from those countries, including the repatriation of some of our brightest minds who had been pursuing international research careers in some of the top universities in the world.
This embodies a most important reality of our research undertaking. Australian universities are great. But most of the global research talent and cutting-edge research discoveries and innovation happens elsewhere in the world. Sometimes we can attract this talent to Australia. But, mostly, talent goes where talent is. And if we can’t relocate them to Australia we need to send our talent to them. For training. For insights. For embedding in leading-edge research. For access. And, for the relationships.
“In time,” you say, “But until it’s safe, we can only have meetings over Zoom.”
Indeed, a lot has been accomplished over Zoom. Our accountants, especially those embedded in government and university bureaucracies, have been telling us for years that we need to be spending less on international travel and making better use of video-conferencing capabilities. They were right.
But there is an important ingredient of the creative and intellectual collaboration process that cannot be replicated over the internet. Nor can it be mandated or bought.
Can you imagine starting any serious research undertaking, or sharing data with, a researcher (or a business, or government) on the other side of the world that you hardly know, or had only spoken with online? Even in the most ideal of circumstances, the element of trust is absolutely essential for any meaningful engagement, yet most difficult to obtain.
Trust comes in two forms. There’s the trust between individual researchers. These people have spent time together. They’ve socialised at international conferences, they’ve undertaken experiments in each other’s labs, and they’ve spent money on each other in order to build collaborations that have been more fruitful than their individual efforts alone.
Then there’s institutional trust. This is where an entire department or faculty knows that they can rely on their counterparts to treat their students/staff correctly, to respect IP and privacy concerns, and make good on agreements on funding and shared ownership of collaborative research projects.
No matter which trust we’re talking about, it only comes about because individuals build trust. And this cannot be done virtually.
And… it must be maintained.
Sometimes, departments stop the back-and-forth flow of staff with their trusted partners. Or, the trust was held in the hands of a few key individuals who subsequently moved or retired. These collaborations then die, and the trust that took many years to establish simply withers away.
For this single reason, it is imperative that Australia mobilises its young research cohort as quickly as possible, to get them back out into the famous institutions around the world to develop and solidify their international relationships that will deliver a lifetime of trusted partnerships, collaborations, discoveries, innovations, and economic advancement.
It’s not just about the trusted personal and institutional connections that this will deliver. It’s the wealth of national capital that this embodies.
Case in point: Australia’s success in tackling COVID-19, and our efforts at the very forefront of developing treatments and vaccines, is only possible because of our capital – human trust capital – that has allowed our researchers to share findings, ideas and data with their trusted partners around the world and receive similar in return. In real time.
If we curtail the ability of our bright young researchers to venture out into the global research landscape, even for a brief period of time, we are strangling one of our most important sources of national capital. In particular, we will, by default, be condemning many of our promising young female researchers to be sideline players in the new global dynamics, rather than trusted participants in shaping the future, since their research profile is being diminished during this time of lockdown and travel bubbles.
I don’t know the mechanisms of how we do this within the current pandemic realities – though a focus on building meaningful relationships, versus standard travel funding, is clearly a necessity. And I would also suggest that key requirements for participants are high degrees of collegiality and service, and a demonstrated commitment to quality education (surely being a trusted educator is an excellent pre-requisite for someone in which we hope to embody trust with important international partners).
We need to find solutions and start taking action now. We need to jump ahead of the curve, to ensure that trust capital amongst our brightest minds is not eroded by virtue of our isolation and successful management of COVID-19.
It is essential to preserve and grow this capital if we hope to make investments in new industries and businesses that will be the catalyst for our national social and economic recovery and long-term prosperity.