We delved into the archives for this compilation episode. With society facing challenges on an unprecedented scale, debates are rife around the question, “How should universities and their researchers prioritize research outcomes with societal impact.”
In our two Bye Bye Blue Sky episodes and our interview on Societal Impact, SDG Research & Universities, societal impact was a popular topic of discussion.
This episode draws together the insights of those three guest experts. You’ll hear from:
Hello, I’m Giacomo Mancini. Welcome to Research 2030, an Elsevier podcast series in which our guest experts discuss, debate and dissect the complex topics faced by research institutions today. And welcome to our latest episode.
Recent events have given societal impact a new sense of urgency. There are the global inequalities and challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the widespread impact of climate change - the out-of-control wildfires, landslides and destructive floods. gap here
We are taking a break from our usual format to discover what some of our previous guests have to say on the topic. While the experts we feature in this compilation special were interviewed about themes as diverse as blue-sky research and university rankings, societal impact was a common thread throughout their discussions.
In this episode, you will hear from:
Professor Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow in the UK. Dr. Cronin heads up the Cronin Group, a digital chemistry lab with many research interests, including finding alien life.
Dr. Andrew Hamilton, President of New York University, who still manages to spend time in the lab. In fact, his group’s research promises to have a strong societal impact – improving the treatment of conditions like cancer.
And Professor Aluísio Segurado, who successfully juggles his twin roles as Professor of Infectious Diseases and Head of Research at Brazil’s University of São Paulo.
Let’s begin with a thought-provoking clip from an episode we released in April this year – Societal Impact, SDG Research & Universities with Professor Aluísio.
Introduced in 2015, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve lives and prospects globally by 2030.
In this clip, you’ll hear Professor Aluísio Segurado run through the inclusive initiatives that led to University of São Paulo being recognized by the 2020 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings for its efforts to end poverty, and resulted in it being ranked 14th out of 766 institutions globally.
Concerning end of poverty, I would say that internally, this probably had to do with the affirmative actions that have been recently put in place by the University of São Paulo in parallel to other activities that are being done in other higher education institutions in Brazil. The positive discrimination action aims to enhance diversity within the student body. And that means to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in the study in the student body. And, uh, we also, we did this in two different ways.
Establishing racial quarter and that is assigning some slots for freshmen that belongs to the African Brazilian community or native Brazilian community. And for that we used self-reported skin color of applicants, but we also use an incentive for students who have their full pre-college education in public schools and here in Latin in America, this is a very important proxy of low social economic status, so that students who have been exclusively educated in public schools are most likely coming from the lowest socioeconomic ranks of society. These two actions have been in place for maybe five years already, five to six years, and are already showing what they are here for in terms of increasing diversity in the student body. And in parallel ensuring those students from underrepresented minorities or low socioeconomic status families would perform as well as their counterparts.
What the University of São Paulo has achieved is inspirational and shows the power of applying practical solutions to real world problems. 0:24 But what about when researchers embark on an experiment with just a healthy dose of curiosity to guide them? Given the scale and the urgency of the challenges we face today, can we justify that kind of blue-sky thinking? It was a question that Elsevier’s Lesley Thomson posed to Professor Lee Cronin in part one of our Bye Bye Blue Sky series back in March 2020. His answer? A resounding yes.
…can you comment on the importance, or not of blue skies as the world faces increasing global challenges?
Yeah, I feel quite passionate about that.
I thought you might.
Blue sky science is probably the only way we are going to have any chance. So, let’s just unpack this a little bit, so for blue sky science there are three reasons to do it. The first one is kind of cultural, like human beings want to know why we’re here in the universe, and how can we understand the universe.
The second thing is kind of training-based; we want to allow people to be curious to look at data to make critical decisions. And thirdly, some people say there is a real problem I want to solve. And so, people can sit between those kinds of motivations, but I think, a few years ago, Glasgow University wanted to start an energy kind of project and they came to me and said, look you know one of your colleagues thinks very highly of you. He’s a world leader in photosynthesis and we want you guys to work together and we’re going to give you some money from a fund and it has to address this solar fuel. And I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t want to do solar fuels, I just want to do crazy stuff, then I went, hang on I spend my day job trying to put electrons into benaluxcide and turn them blue because I want to know, basically, when I add more electrons to my metal oxide, I get better nano structures.
So, why don’t I try to think about that, and because I had to think about the solar context, I discovered a new way of splitting water using metal oxides and we came up with a system that produces hydrogen, we’ve got the highest, potentially the highest energy capacity flow battery known. It can store 30 times more energy than other flow batteries…and we did this by mistake. Because basically, I was doing my blue-sky thing and I was asked to basically spend a bit of my time thinking about how I might direct that energy.
So, I think that blue-sky scientists should engage a little bit and say, OK, I’m going direct my energy, but what we mustn’t do is let the tail wag the dog. And I’m trying to plea with the UK, at this very important junction in the UK’s kind of political and technological transformation, to basically make sure that we’re not just challenge led, but we are…I want to coin a new term, but I can’t come up with one yet, but I want to kind of like ‘Blue-sky challenge kind of rebound’ where I’m allowed to throw up a kind of scientific question into the sky and see if some of the things we discover rebounds off one of the big topics of the day, be it energy, recycling plastics, solving the antibiotic drug problem, things like that.
For Dr. Cronin, blue-sky, or basic research is not only useful, it’s essential if we are to find solutions to the grand societal challenges we face. Here Lesley asks Dr. Cronin about that.
…one thing I would characterize your lab as is a lab that has a lot of fun. That's not always the case in research labs. But if you are running this very adventurous, speculative, serendipitous research lab, can you describe the relationship to that endeavor to then some of the work that you do that leads to applied science?
I'll take one example which is a thing we’ve invented called the Chemputer and the chemputer is a robot that basically you put in a code and it makes you a drug, or if you’re an organic chemist it will make you a molecule. Very kind of you know, on one level deeply inspiring, another one deeply kind of disturbing, and on another level kind of like, you know, boring, it makes an organic molecule.
Well, the reason why I invented the chemputer was I needed a robot to do lots of conventorial kind of searching coz I needed to make a system that would crack the origin of life. So, I needed a robot that would basically do lots of chemistry, that wasn't necessarily going to go anywhere, but I could read out when things are working, and when I tried to convince a PhD student to do that, they were like, oh my God, that's going to take a million years or 100 million years. No. So well design a robot.
And then when I went to funders I said hey, guys, what you need is to give me a load of money to make a robot to basically shake sand in a box. And I don't know what it is going to produce. Everyone was like, oh…well, can you, can you, is there anything you can do with the sand shaker? Oh, I can invent drugs for you. They went: Good. Okay. So what happened then is you got one half of your team saying our motivation is to discover things, and the other half is to say, well, if we know how to make something by hand, can we faithfully reproduce it. And what I try and do is get those two, kinds of, types of research to touch one another. And again, then you allow people to move from a blue sky to really like a “oh my gosh, we've just made the chemputer work and I mean it really actually produces drugs. And, what we do now is use it for our origin of life project, or we're now going to use it to go into discovery mode.
Dr. Cronin is not the only one who’s passionate about looking beyond practical outcomes. In part two of our Bye Bye Blue Sky series, New York University’s Dr. Andrew Hamilton mused on the importance of pure scholarship, particularly the humanities. As he explained to Lesley, while finding out what happened with the dinosaurs may not be immediately applicable to the economy of a small country, it certainly does enrich society. He went on to add:
I often use the example of, you know, the importance of the humanities to help us understand what it is to be human. It is never more important than when science reaches its limits. And I think of the world of medicine and the remarkable discoveries that have been made over the last half century. That's great, until there is no further treatment. And then the nature of death and it is to the humanities that we can turn for much insight and, and in many other areas as well. And so blue skies research for me is something that it is vital that we continue our recognition of its importance, not just in the sciences but far beyond as well. And, and what was it George Porter, I think the wonderful George Porter once said that, uh, there is no such thing as applied science. It's just science that hasn't found an application yet.
While some may see the move towards societal impact as a recent trend, for Dr. Hamilton, it’s always been a core goal for universities – and many of the corporates they choose to partner with.
You know, in a sense there’s always been mission driven research. And that has, you know, from the Manhattan Project onwards, we've had mission-driven research and of course in the world of corporate research, whether it's the labs or IBM or the pharmaceutical industry, there have been all of which, in their time, have been very important parts of the research landscape, the research ecosystem. Then it is quite right and proper that there be highly mission-driven, whether it be government funded, whether it be corporate funded. You know, I look, for example, in some of the challenges the world faces today, whether it be in climate change and the need for new carbon capture technologies or new, improved efficiencies of photovoltaics systems. I think about the issue of antibiotic resistance, which is very unlikely to be solved in the corporate setting because of the financial structures involved and will need mission-driven Manhattan Projects for us to keep a flow of novel antibiotics coming, that kind of thing.
I see no lessening of recognition of the place of both a mission driven and blue-skies research. Uh, do I think it's become harder to justify blue-skies research in the political context? Yes, of course, and that's something because of the way in which some of the challenges that society faces have become more clearly visible. It has naturally brought government's attention to wanting to target resources to those areas. But of course, one of the ways in which we ensure that there is continued recognition of the importance of blue-skies research is showing examples of where solutions are found in the most unexpected of places. And I think science is very good at telling those stories and those will continue, whether it's new materials, the perovskites, you know, it replacing photovoltaics, coming from very basic, solid state chemistry studies, to other areas of scientific discovery.
The interviews with Dr. Cronin and Dr. Hamilton were conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus’ devastating and wide-reaching impact has reignited debates about the extent to which universities should shift their focus to mission-led outcomes. In the following clip Elsevier’s Fernanda Gusmão asks how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the perceptions of science and university research.
And talking about reflection, changing a little bit, the focus of our conversation, I wanted to draw attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and how would show the importance of science to society and highlighted the role of universities in science development. Do you believe that society's perceptions of the role of universities will change after the pandemic? And if so, how?
Yes. This, this is very important for us as, as you know, very well Fernanda. We are under a social political environment currently in Brazil that is not very favorable for science and higher education that has, that has been a movement that involved media and government officers that really questioned the importance, the important role of higher education institutions and scientific initiatives in general. And it, and again, this was also related to the response we tried to build against the pandemic. But I have no doubt that we can showcase our importance very clearly in this very tragic event of the pandemic. We certainly came out with very innovative solutions for this public health emergency. Having research initiatives, being funded by the university itself, trying to get research funds from private partners in large amounts to develop emergency solutions for a problem that had really hit us very hard.
So I can tell you, in a very short period of time, we were able to put together over 200 research teams at USP that were working together in an interdisciplinary fashion that had never seen that had never been seen before in that extent, to try to come out with innovative solutions that ended up with ventilators that were built with support of health investigators and in clinical engineers, of positioning cushions for those patients with severe respiratory failure that have to be put in, in a proper position to improve their physiological conditions so that they can keep breathing, even though they are, have been severely affected by this respiratory viral infection, development of diagnostic tests at a time when diagnostic tests for COVID-19 were scarce in the country, we were able to put together 19 research laboratories in a network that provided together COVID diagnosis for the health system, for our unified health system.
Apart from that, I cannot forget to talk about the vaccine trials that were undertaken and developed in the university. And all the molecular epidemiological studies with the new Coronavirus that involved researchers from the university. So, I believe, we really did very well in that regard. So, we came out, even, when the government seemed not to be responding as we had expected, we came out and very rapidly really put all our efforts into trying to come with those solutions, and we interacted with the government of the state of São Paulo, for instance, we were called upon to provide emergency care to patients with severe COVID-19. What did we do? We very rapidly transformed our academic health center here. Hospital dos clinica in Sao Paulo, in a COVID designated hospital that's quickly provided from January to March, provided over 300 intensive care unit beds and 500 ward beds exclusively for patients with COVID-19.
It’s not only blue-sky and applied research that are joining forces to further the common good. Increasingly, researchers are crossing discipline borders, drawing on the skills of their colleagues in other fields to respond to the complex situations we face. Here’s Dr. Hamilton again:
I look at chemistry, you know, I'm heading towards the end of my career. 40 years ago, Chemistry was quite a different place. If you looked at what people were doing in chemistry departments, it tended to be a more classical chemistry. And 40 years before that, even more so. Now you look in a chemistry department and you'll find zebrafish, you'll find animal studies going on, you'll find solid state physics being carried out, all in a chemistry department because the subject has expanded. And the same could be said for neuroscience. The same could be said for economics, or even philosophy. And I do think that new areas to be explored are constantly coming in sight. And that is a process that happens even more effectively when we cross borders of our discipline and cross borders in a geographically defined world.
That concept of crossing geographic borders to work with like-minded colleagues, wherever they are based – and importantly, to advance society by sharing data, skills and results – is one that Lee is keen to promote. During his interview with Lesley, she asked him about the impact of increased R&D investment in the East, particularly China.
I think the Western government should double down on creativity and double down on what we do really, really well. And I think we have a role to play in making sure that our colleagues in China also get access to that creativity because there are massive cultural and political differences. And I would say that the volume of research that's going to be done in China in the next decade is truly staggering.
Wouldn't it be great if, through collaboration between groups in China, the UK, the US the rest of the world, that we could make the quality of that data collected, or the relevance, because I'm sure that the data quality is going to get higher and higher and higher, but the relevance increase because we have new types of collaboration, which are culturally sensitive and leverage our unique abilities. Right. I mean, there is a reason why the industrial revolution started in the UK and it's not because we're geniuses. I think it's because it rained all the time. Right. And if you're sitting between Birmingham and Wales in the freezing cold rain, you might have been motivated to create a new type of transport system than say if you're living in northern Spain in a nice olive grove near the sea.
So, I don't know, I mean I think that we should not try and compete in volume. We should try and engage in such a way that humanity wins by cooperating across these boundaries.
The University of São Paulo’s drive to create a more equitable, sustainable Brazil fuels much of the institution’s work. This has led to Professor Aluísio and his team extending a helping hand to other institutions in the country. Something Proferssor Aluísio is not only happy to do, but believes will help promote the ability of higher education to positively impact society.
It’s crucial for us to show the Brazilian society that the University of São Paulo and its fellow higher education institutions are important players in the Brazilian society for development, for economic development, social development, and the possibility of adding up to this necessary rapid responsiveness that is required when we have these emergencies in the future.
Revisiting these three episodes has provided a fascinating insight into the growing importance of societal impact and the trends and factors driving it. But one aspect we haven’t touched on is technology. I think most researchers would agree that it plays a pivotal role in empowering results with real-world applications. Not only does it enable new research or solutions, it also supports collaborations and helps scientists communicate their findings to the communities they serve. While all our interviewees welcomed the opportunities that technology offers, for Dr. Cronin, at least, its societal impact isn’t necessarily always positive.
The thing that I always dreamed of, when I was younger, this internet, oh I wish there was internet we'd all be connected together and we could get all the information we need, well, that dream has come true in my lifetime but something else has happened in that it has been hijacked by people wanting to manipulate the current truths of the day. Now, of course, that always happens, right, you know. The person owning the printing press, owns the propaganda. But I think that universities have a special role in in challenging that problem and providing new solutions and also providing government with new ways of ensuring that humanity has access to evidence as objective as possible.
That critical role of the university, particularly the researcher, in harnessing technology was something that Dr. Hamilton was also keen to emphasize.
We have always used technology to help us express ourselves and we will continue to do so, and the technology will get ever more complex and advanced. Will we ever reach a point where the scientists disappear and we have banks of computers coming up with our next drug molecules. Maybe one day. It's hard to imagine it won't happen one day, but actually not for a very long time. And I think then that places the emphasis on the researchers themselves to continue to be a leap ahead in terms of the recognition of what matters and the way in which it is presented to the world as an important development.
Our sincere thanks to all the guest experts who contributed to this compilation episode for Research 2030. And our thanks to you for listening! If you have questions or comments to share with us about this episode, or the podcast in general, we would love to hear them! Send us an email at Research2030@elsevier.com.
Don't forget to sign up to Research 2030 on your favorite podcast provider – that way, you'll be the first to hear about new episodes. I'm Giacomo Mancini – until next time.