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The more, the merrier

On 1 March, David Malone began a five-year term as rector of the United Nations University, the UN’s research and education branch. He shares his view of the rise of higher education and science in emerging countries with Catie Lichten.

What is the role of the UNU compared with that of traditional universities?

The UNU was created nearly 40 years ago, to provide research that could feed into UN debates and decision-making. It is based in Tokyo, Japan, but a great deal of research goes on in specialised institutes in other countries. We have always accepted doctoral students for co-supervision, but a new development in the past five years is that our two institutes in Japan started teaching masters courses focused on sustainable development.

As you begin your term as rector, what changes do you see affecting global higher education?

The world of higher education is under pressure financially in western countries. For the time being, industrialised countries are going to continue spending a great deal more on research than emerging countries do. But you can see, notably in places such as China, very significant gains for research funding and higher education. You can also see that in countries such as Brazil, and to a lesser extent South Africa. In India, there is increasing awareness that high-quality universities need to generate high-quality research, not just teaching.

How does this affect the UNU’s research focus?

We’re at a moment of great uncertainty for the future of large aid programmes in the industrialised world. This shapes the choices we have to make when selecting projects. The shortage of money everywhere means that you have to be one of the very best in your field, in the world, in order to attract serious funding. 

How do you plan to make the UNU succeed in this environment?

In my experience, a relentless focus on quality nearly always results in better output, at least initially. Evaluation of our research quality will help to establish how well we are doing and where there is room for improvement. Remaining at peak level year after year and venturing into new topics and perspectives is tough. There are many incentives to achieve this, including the knowledge that good research outcomes greatly expand career options. 

Could the scarcity of resources improve the quality of research by making it more competitive?

The problem with a scarcity of resources is that less money could lead to a reduction in work that is high in impact but also riskier, or off the beaten track. That said, less money would certainly make the research world more competitive.

How do you think emerging countries will compete with research leaders?

Emerging countries are both partnering and competing with the best institutions. We already see that in the private sector all the time. Developing countries cannot yet match the research that goes on in, say, Britain or the United States in terms of quality. They realise that it’s going to take them some time to get there, but they are determined. Actually, competition has started quite seriously in the last decade or two.

What does that mean for today’s research leaders?

The west is not likely to dominate science indefinitely, unchallenged in the rest of the world. It’s something we’re not used to thinking about in the industrialised world, because we’re so used to being on the cutting edge of research. The idea that others might challenge us and rival us never occurs to us. But it’s something we will have to get used to.

So, how is the west reacting to the challenge?

The industrialised world is slowly waking up to the reality of an emerging world in which economic growth is more dynamic than our own. Should this growth be sustained over two or three more decades, it will create a radically different picture. Leading industrialised countries like Britain, the US, Japan and Canada are beginning to look at these countries in a different way and are establishing research partnerships with them. Private-sector actors in the industrialised world are also increasingly interested in seeing whether they can benefit from research skills in the developing world.

Should today’s strongest countries feel threatened by these changes?

No. These trends are extremely promising for the developing world, and I don’t think it threatens strong countries in any way. The industrialised world is just going to have more company. 

David Malone

  • 2013 Rector of the United Nations University
  • 2008-2013 President of Canada’s International Development Research Centre
  • 2006-2008 Canada’s high commissioner to India and non-resident ambassador to Bhutan and Nepal
  • 1998-2004 President of the International Peace Academy (now the International Peace Institute)
  • 1997 D Phil in international relations, University of Oxford