One simple philosophy of life thinks in terms of communities and purpose – love and work. If an organisation gets community and purpose right, then they strengthen each other.

In recent years there has been an extraordinarily positive effort with respect to strengthening communities, making them more inclusive. I see the spread of policies and practices relating to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, as genuine attempts to build communities.

I’ve noticed that some people find the visibility of these efforts a bit overwhelming at times, especially those worried about censorious political correctness, but when we remember that the American Civil War and the Second World War were in part battles against racism, I wonder if we are currently doing enough to combat societal divisions. If you’ve watched Downton Abbey, you’ll know that we’ve come a long way, but progress seems to be flattening now, inequality is increasing, so there is further work to do.

If Equity, Diversity and Inclusion are aimed at improving the community and making all members feel valued, and feel they have a secure future in the community, then what is happening in relation to the second big thing – purpose?

I see the inexorable rise of Strategic Planning as part of an effort to strengthen and clarify purpose. And purpose is much harder to sort out than community. Community is hard in practice, yes. But in theory, at least, all you really need is the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most cultures have a rule like this. But different communities’ purposes are wildly various. When one thinks about purpose things quickly get crazy.

Some communities are brought together by a shared interest in train spotting or collecting stamps, and other people like collecting money. Others like climbing mountains. Some like playing football. Football is a great purpose because there is a team and a scoreboard. Just as players in communities need occasional recognition by their peers to remind them they are still a valued member, in terms of purpose the team and individuals benefit from a scoreboard and some statistics.

The problem with a lot of purposes – and strategic plans – is that there either isn’t a good scoreboard, or the scoreboard conflicts with the purpose and generates “perverse incentives.”. Some strategic plans have vague purposes like – to make the world a better place. Conversely, some purposes are too precise – to move up the league tables – and there they suffer from Goodhart’s Law “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Having precise targets can ultimately lead to gaming, and can also mean that people whose needs are somewhat orthogonal to those targets feel marginalised. In reality, most organisations are fairly sophisticated and look to achieve balance when it comes to judging dreaded Key Performance Indicators but it’s hard to communicate that fact to all members of the community.

When it comes to labs, and individuals within them, it’s also important to focus on community and purpose. Most molecular biology labs have between ten and twenty people, spread over a range of ages and experience, and teams form quite naturally with the more senior people inducting and helping train the new people.

The joint authorship that is the norm in the sciences works to establish shared purposes in terms of publication. Publications dominate our thinking, but ultimately my lab’s goal is to contribute to curing sickle cell anemia, and each paper is just a rung on the ladder to that destination. Papers are infrequent, but getting answers to daily experiments, and making presentations at weekly lab meetings, and annual scientific conferences can make for a healthy scoreboard – provided not too much pressure is applied.

Sometimes grander purposes are considered, such as blue-sky questions about fundamental mechanisms in gene regulation – how are genes turned on and off. This is a good purpose too but the answers we get tend to be only relevant to a very select audience – others across the world working on the same cryptic crossword puzzle as us – so it helps to have a more general applied medical purpose as well.

Training is another excellent purpose of a lab. This one, unlike scientific discovery, is pretty much guaranteed. We cannot be sure that we will discover anything, but over the one year Honours project or three to four years of a PhD we can teach a student how to fish.

In general, higher education provides both purpose and community to individual students. Students like being enrolled with their peers, and they like working towards clear and achievable academic goals. There is a lot of talk these days about shorter and shorter degrees, but my observation is that degrees tend to get longer. And more and more students seem to like doing post-graduate degrees on-line. In terms of total educational costs the expansion of education is a bit challenging, but in terms of having well educated citizens, this trend could be, and I believe is, very good for society.


Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life

UNSW Sydney


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