'Policy-Making in a Science and Technology-based Society'

STS Forum, Kyoto, Japan

8th October 2018

Good morning,

Thanks for the opportunity to be part of this important discussion.

I would like to start by considering what role universities play in creating the society that we live in. This is similar to the question set by the conference organisers: how can science best contribute to informed political decision-making?

An obvious answer is that universities provide the research that politicians act on. For instance, climate change scientists provide the data and models that give politicians the impetus and justification for new policies.

It’s a crucial role – obviously. But even more important is the chief role of universities is the education of future generations of decision-makers – and not just politicians – maybe they’re not even the most important – but teachers, lawyers, judges, social workers, journalists, engineers – everyone, in short, who contributes to shaping society.

Policies are created in response to people, and universities educate many of the influential people.

For a university to hold itself apart from the politics and society of its region, is, I believe, irresponsible and evasive.

Universities educate young people at a time when they’re particularly open to learning and to experience. How can universities provide an experience that’s both helpful

  • to the student as an individual, and
  • to society as a whole?

In my university, Trinity College Dublin, we have identified four graduate attributes that we believe our students will need to be successful, and useful, in a society that’s increasingly global and technological and that has particular challenges around sustainability, migration and inequality.  

The four Trinity Graduate Attributes which our university community agreed on are:

  • to think independently;
  • to communicate effectively
  • to develop continuously and 
  • to act responsibly.

We are imbuing these attributes in all students, in all disciplines, by way of the academic curriculum and co-curricular activities of student societies, student volunteering, and student entrepreneurship. We want the whole of a student’s experience to encourage him or her towards thinking independently, communicating effectively, developing continuously, and acting responsibly.

Can this be done? Is it possible to shape a student’s sense of responsibility so that you influence future decision-making that impacts on society? It may sound ambitious but it’s important for universities to set their stalls out - to say ‘this is what we stand for’; it’s important that we step up and accept accountability, not only for our graduates’ achievements, but for the kind of society that they create.

*   *   *

Now I’d like to turn to the interface between science and politics in a specific area: how do we design curricula and research programmes for engineers and scientists in the context of a resource-constrained planet? How can universities contribute to the political imperative for countries to meet sustainability goals?

This is something we’ve given a lot of thought to in Trinity. I’m an engineer myself and the University has long-established, excellent schools of Engineering and Natural Sciences, and growing strengths in interdisciplinarity.

The Engineering, Environment and Enabling Technologies Institute, which we’re calling E3, will be one of the first institutes internationally to integrate engineering, technology and the natural sciences, at scale, to address challenges of a livable planet.

Students of engineering, natural sciences and computer science will develop transversal skills through working on multidisciplinary projects in collaborative student-managed learning spaces. They will learn from each other to develop innovative solutions towards, for instance, climate change, renewable energy, personalised data, water, connectivity and sustainable manufacturing.

In the second stage, the E3 Research Institute will be the centrepiece of a new Innovation District in Dublin. Six interdisciplinary focus areas are defined :

  • Cities
  • Data
  • Environment
  • Production.
  • Resources
  • Well-being

E3 has received substantial investment from philanthropy and from the government. It will be decisive in helping Ireland to meet its sustainability goals. It is being designed to go beyond mission-oriented research and to enable supra-governmental innovation strategies. I think I am now out of time, but I can discuss this more in the panel debate.

Let me end by saying that E3 is our model and template of how universities and science can best contribute to informed political decision-making. As both a research institute and a learning foundry, it meets the dual need:

  • to provide fundamental research that can be translated into innovation; and
  • to educate the future generation of leaders to be responsible, ethical, creative and innovative.

Thank you

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Forum Panel Discussion Questions

Q.1: ‘Is mission-oriented research funding the best mode to deal with grand challenges?’

I’m proud to say that five years ago, when we were putting together the Strategic Plan (2014-2019), we included in this, the need for what we called ‘a Global Research Question’ which we identified as ‘one of the great questions facing the future of humankind’ such as climate change, energy provision, migration, inequality. And we emphasized that, a Global Research Question cannot be addressed by one institution alone, and we would need to establish ‘a global network of universities, research institutes and NGOs’.

The intention with the Global Research Question is to go beyond ‘mission-oriented research’. It acknowledges, as does this question, that the traditional way of doing research – where funding goes to the PI – isn’t necessarily the best for confronting the grand challenges that threaten humankind and the planet.

Funding bodies should adopt a new approach and universities should contribute by creating interdisciplinary teams and institutes that can apply for funding. E3 will be set up in this way.

I note also that the European commission is taking a different approach to funding around sustainable development goals. These are now more challenge-oriented – for instance ‘get poverty below a certain level’ is a grand challenge, rather than a specific mission.

Q.2: Do national governments need to synchronize their innovation strategies internationally?

This is related to the previous question insofar as research and innovation that addresses the grand challenges needs to be international.

It’s not easy to achieve because naturally countries are competitive around innovation. Where you can get results is by working through existing supra-national organisations like the EU. And in fact the EU has already set up a body to enable pan-European innovation: the EIT, or European Institute of Innovation and Technology enhances Europe’s ability to innovate by strengthening synergies between the business community, higher education and research – called “the Knowledge Triangle”.

The European Parliament – which is elected by European citizens – decides what areas the EIT should focus on. The current areas of focus are: climate, digital, raw materials, energy, food and health. In all these areas the EIT is generating spin-outs and small company creation across Europe.

The EIT is a relatively new organisation, just a decade old. It has required significant funding to date, but it is getting good results and is, I think, a game-changer for innovation in Europe.

Q.3: How do we advocate the role of science to the public?

Traditionally universities do this through public lectures and interviews and by cultivating good relations with the media and having scientists serve on policy boards.

In Trinity we do all these things, but we have also pioneered a way of advocating science in a truly exciting and fresh way and to the very young. The earlier you can get children excited about science, the better.

Science Gallery is a Trinity initiative which we established a decade ago. It’s where science and art colide – we ‘exhibit’ science shows around as if they were art installations. Typically science gallery shows are around themes – like, for instance, Seeing or Trauma or Illusion or the current exhibition, Intimacy. The exhibitions are curated by academics, artists, designers and researchers.

Science Gallery has had 3 million visitors since it opened its doors and because it’s visual and tangible and fun, it’s particularly popular with school children.

We have now established a Global Science Gallery Network. We are opening science gallery in other cities globally. Science Gallery London has just opened in King’s College London. Next we will be opening science galleries in Melbourne, Venice and Bengaluru.