The phrases “post truth” and “alternative facts” have slipped into common use. Agendas have displaced analysis in much of our public debate. And we are all the poorer for it.
I want to deliver a passionate defence of the value of expertise and evidence. I will mount a case for facts as they are grounded in evidence, not as fluid points of convenience employed to cover or distort a proposition.
My plea to you all is this: let’s not deride experts, nor the value of expertise. Because in an era where extremists and polemicists seek to claim more and more of the public square, our need for unbiased, well-researched information has seldom been greater.
We must remind ourselves of how human progress has ever been forged. In this, academics and journalists have common cause. For how are we to fulfill our respective roles in a democracy if we don’t defend the indispensible role of evidence in decision-making?
Hostility towards evidence and expertise
In Australia and around the world, we’ve seen the emergence of a creeping cynicism – even outright hostility – towards evidence and expertise.
We saw this sentiment in the post-Brexit declaration by British Conservative MP, Michael Gove that “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”
And yet – as we strive to cure cancer; save lives from preventable disease; navigate disruption; lift living standards; overcome prejudice, and prevent catastrophic climate change – expertise has never been more important.
The turn that public debate has taken is a challenge to universities. As institutions for the public good, we exist to push the frontiers of knowledge. We enhance human understanding through methodical, collaborative, sustained and robust inquiry.
That doesn’t discount the wisdom of the layperson. And it doesn’t mean universities have all the answers. Far from it. But we are unequivocally the best places to posit the questions.
We are places structurally, intellectually, ethically and intrinsically premised on confronting society’s most complex and confounding problems. We are at the vanguard of specialist knowledge. And we are relentless in its pursuit. We have to be. Because – like the challenges we as institutions immerse ourselves in – the pace of change is unrelenting.
In universities, questioning is continuous, and answers are always provisional. The intensive specialisation, in-depth inquiry and measured analysis universities undertake is not carried-out in service of some ulterior motive or finite agenda.
In the conduct of research the finish-line is very rarely, if ever reached. There’s always more to learn, more to discover. The core objectives universities pursue can never be about any other agenda than the truth. There is no other, nor greater reward. So let’s not disparage expertise, or the critically important role of evidence and intellectual inquiry.
Instead, let’s try to understand its value to our country and its people. And, indeed, to the world.
Universities perform an essential role in society. We must stand up for evidence. Stand up for facts. Stand up for the truth. Because if we don’t, who will?
Universities’ role in the economy
Disruption is drastically refashioning the economy. It is reshaping the way we work, and reimagining the way we engage with each other in our local communities and globally.
In this constantly transforming environment – where major structural shifts in the economy can profoundly dislocate large segments of society – our universities perform a pivotal role.
Universities help us make the very best of disruption, ensuring we are able to “ride the wave”. And they are the institutions best equipped to buffer us against the fallout. This is particularly important in regions that have relied for decades on large-scale blue-collar industries.
Think Geelong in regional Victoria and Mackay in central Queensland. Look to Elizabeth in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Wollongong and Newcastle in New South Wales. And Launceston in Tasmania. Onetime manufacturing strongholds in carmaking, steel, timber and sugar.
These communities have been wrenched economically, socially and at the personal level by automation, offshoring and rationalisation. For places like these, universities can be a lifeline.
Internationally, the evidence is in. Former financier, Antoine van Agtmael and journalist, Fred Bakker look at this very scenario in their recent book, “The Smartest Places on Earth”.
They uncover a transformative pattern in more than 45 formerly struggling regional US and European economies; places they describe as “rustbelts” turned “brainbelts”.
Akron, Ohio is one of the most remarkable examples they cite. This midwestern city had four tyre companies disappear practically overnight. The then president of the University of Akron, Luis Proenza, reached out to those affected, rallying them to collaborate and encouraging them to transform.
Van Agtmael tells the story of what happened next. “What stayed in Akron”, he observes, “was the world class polymer research that has given us things like contact lenses that change colour if you have diabetes, tyres that can drive under all kinds of road conditions and hundreds more inventions.”
Akron, he continues, “now [has] 1,000 little polymer companies that have more people working for them than the four old tyre companies.”
This kind of transformation, at Akron and beyond, Van Agtmael remarks, is “university centric.”
“Each of these rustbelts becoming brain belts”, he concludes, “always have universities.” In places like those he describes, and many others around the world, universities and their graduates are leading vital processes of renewal within economies experiencing upheaval.
You may be surprised by the extent that this is happening in Australia, too.
Four-in-five startup founders are uni graduates
Over the past decade, the startup economy has become part of Australia’s strategy for economic diversification and growth. Yet what has not been widely understood is the extent to which universities and their graduates are responsible for that growth.
Now, for the first time, Universities Australia and the survey group Startup Muster have taken a closer look at the data.
“Startup Smarts: universities and the startup economy”, confirms that universities and their graduates are the driving force in Australia’s startup economy.
It tells us that four-in-five startup founders in this country are university graduates. Many startups, too, have been nurtured into existence by a university incubator, accelerator, mentoring scheme or entrepreneurship course.
There are more than one-hundred of these programs dispersed widely across the country, with many on regional campuses.
They provide support, physical space and direct access to the latest research. They help to grow great Australian ideas into great Australian businesses.
This report confirms just how important the constant evolution, renewal and refining of course offerings at universities is.
We need to ensure that our programs equip our students and graduates for an uncertain future.
By the time today’s kindergarten students finish high school and are considering university study, startups will have created over half-a-million new jobs across the country. And this new sector of the economy – a sector indivisible from our universities – raised $568 million in 2016; 73% more than the previous year.
By the very nature of the reach of our universities, the benefits are not confined to our cities. We play a vital role to help regional Australians and farmers stake their claim in the startup economy too. The idea of the “silicon paddock”’ – using technology to take farm-based businesses to the markets of the world – is no longer a concept. It’s a reality.
Technology enables our regional entrepreneurs to stay in our regions; building and running businesses, investing locally without the need for long commutes or city relocations. And this, too, is very important; making sure nobody is left behind.
Extending knowledge beyond uni gates
Comprehending and overcoming the complex problems the world confronts, in my view, requires we defend the role of expertise and intellectual inquiry. That doesn’t mean universities are the last word on knowledge. To a large extent, it means rethinking the way knowledge is conveyed beyond university gates.
If universities don’t turn their minds to this issue, others will. And their motivations may not always be altruistic.
Take research, for instance. When the facts of a particular field of inquiry are under attack, the natural reaction among researchers might be to tighten-up their retort and hone the theoretical armory.
It is right to be rigorous and methodical in research. But in the broader communication of our research – in the public dialogue beyond “the lab” – I think universities have to guard against retreating to overly technical language that, perhaps inadvertently, sidelines all but a limited group of specialists.
I don’t suggest that research can’t benefit or even be improved via a researcher’s consciousness of a particular, often very specific audience. Yet researchers who allow this consciousness to dominate the development of their work risk undermining their ability to tread new ground and challenge existing frontiers of knowledge.
Only by crossing borders can we come to something new. How many researchers’ discoveries have arisen from a subversion of discipline, practice or establishment? Virtually all, I would suggest.
Breaking down structural boundaries
Crossing borders also means we push other structural boundaries. Within universities, distinct discipline paradigms exist for good reason. They bring focus and in-depth intellectual lineage to a particular field.
But, increasingly, the complex problems we set out to solve don’t abide by the same boundaries. These questions demand expertise from many disciplines, working together and approaching the subject matter from different angles.
That is why universities are constantly refining their research and teaching programs and, increasingly, diffusing the borders that kept many of them separate. This is good for universities. It is good for the country. And it is good for our students, many of whom find their way into public service or politics.
These graduates bring a greater understanding of all facets of the complex questions they confront throughout their working lives.
Interdisciplinarity is, I think, a powerful antidote against ideological intransigence and prejudice. Australian universities – particularly in their research – have a growing track-record in this regard.
Many of our very best research institutes are characterised by a fusion of disciplines where, for example, sociologists, political scientists, spatial geographers, and economists collaborate on a common research objective.
The work that emerges from this research is almost always compelling because it is multi-faceted. It extends itself beyond its constituent research community.
Cross-disciplinarity has also expanded at the teaching level of our universities over the past few decades. But a constrained funding environment can provoke a reduction in options.
We must, however, keep our viewfinder broad, because reductionism doesn’t match the expansionist, multi-strand trends emerging in the broader economy. It’s a disconnect.
As universities, as a society, we must be mindful of how important it is to ask questions, to follow our curiosity, to challenge boundaries and to never rest with the answers.
Barney Glover Vice-Chancellor, Western Sydney University
Published in The Conversation.