In John Wyndham’s apocalyptic book, The Day of the Triffids, as society collapses one of the many people who had been rendered blind, keeps muttering that the Americans will come to the rescue. This mentality of blind faith must not take hold in Australia or we won’t be ready for the future. We won’t be ready for future pandemics. We won’t be ready for future energy crises. We won’t be ready for food or water shortages or for bush fires or floods.

We live on a wonderfully isolated island. We have so many advantages. We need to invest in our own capabilities for the future.

We know that capability increasingly means technology, and technology is built on know how. Expert knowledge. Deep, expert, technical knowledge. On generations of intellectually ambitious graduates.

Who developed the COVID Vaccines? Oxford and big biotech companies in Europe and the US that were spawned out of a knowledge economy. Where did the know-how come from? From years of investment in training graduates and in public research underpinning translation.

Some of the global science that has been translated this year is stunning. The new RNA vaccines seem to work even better than we dared to hope. This sets humanity up well for the future. Remember when we weren’t sure if it was even possible to develop a vaccine against a corona virus?  Now we know and so far the RNA vaccines work best.

This changes everything. COVID is just one of several known corona viruses that circulate each year. The others cause common colds. It is possible that humanity could finally develop vaccines against those colds. I would welcome fewer colds in the future.

Not all colds are caused by corona viruses. There are several other viruses but who knows how effective RNA vaccines would be against those. A very promising RNA vaccine against malaria is also under development. With tropical diseases spreading, Australia needs to be ready. In short, RNA vaccines are great because they work, but also because you can update them very rapidly to keep ahead of changing or emerging viruses.

To me the next big thing will be a new Australian RNA facility for making vaccines. Sounds easy – it’s not – you need to scale up to vast levels and maintain impeccable quality and batch tracking. Australia is one of the leaders in influenza vaccine production and we could lead in other areas too. But it needs an investment in research and in production. In both.

But overall is Australia poised and ready for the future?

We have one of the best health systems in the world and a university system that punches above its weight. We’ve seen the level of expert advice provided during the pandemic. Politicians have worked well with health experts. Australia has the know how and we need to preserve it. But are we maintaining and building capability?

At present our universities are suffering financial pressures – fewer students, less revenue. There are suggestions that the focus should shift from stretching for the heights of intellectual achievement and back to just educating local students. Stretching for the heights is framed as – trying to move up league tables. But that’s a misunderstanding.

Reaching for the heights is about capability. Capability to do things. The more we can do, the more value we can add to society. Of course, we want to educate local students and we always have but our capabilities are a core part of university teaching too. The Government’s Provider Category Standards Review made it very clear that universities must also lead in research in order to provide first rate teaching, in order to attract and retain top academics, and in order to earn the title “university.”

Learning isn’t just about accessing knowledge on the internet. It is also about being inspired by teachers who work within a world class knowledge machine – the modern university. Not every academic has to do research, but every university has to establish a knowledge community.

People keep telling me that academics should shift their priorities from penning publications to teaching and applying knowledge, from trying to climb league tables, back to helping society. But these things are always interlinked. The best academics and universities are like beanstalks that yearn to grow forever upwards. Not for the sake of being tall or for the view, but for the capabilities and the opportunities to use knowledge for impact.

Just now Australia has the perfect foundation. We are strong in medical research. We have world class infrastructure due to years of good policy – the Higher Education Endowment Fund and the Education Infrastructure Fund and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). We have funding sources – the Government established the Medical Research Future Fund and there is talk of a Translational Research Fund.

Right now universities are hurting but the Government pumped in $1B in research funding to help us in 2021. We need to retain and sustain the workforce beyond that. Universities are not saying “give me, give me, give me” – they are saying “I think I can, just look, we did it, we can help again.” We can make our society stronger.

All we need is a united mindset. A mindset that allows us to shrug off the blind faith that the Americans or someone else will rescue us and instead prioritise backing Australia’s ability.

Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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