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‘Universities must change to tackle societal challenges’

Image: Andrew Silver for Research Professional News

Inorms 2023: University vice-chancellor calls for greater diversity of perspectives in research and management

Universities must change how they operate to better tackle societal challenges, a university vice-chancellor has told the annual conference of the International Network of Research Management Societies.

Cheryl de la Rey (pictured), vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, told the Inorms conference in Durban, South Africa, on 31 May that universities must act based on a greater diversity of perspectives than they traditionally have.

This is both because neglected communities have valuable input to provide, she said, and because societies are becoming increasingly sceptical of institutions that fail to engage with them.

“There’s a great deal of ambivalence about whether the knowledge produced by science should be trusted,” de la Rey warned, citing examples including a growing reluctance among parents to vaccinate their children.

She pointed out that what research is carried out, and how, is influenced by its broader position in society, such as the politics and values it takes for granted, but said that “for too long we ignored that” in how universities are run.

A utopia for research

The Inorms conference is being attended by more than 500 research managers, funders and other professionals from more than 50 countries, according to the organisers. Its theme is Towards a Utopia in Research and Innovation Management, and de la Rey suggested that such a state for the profession should one day be attainable, but that change is needed to bring this about.

At present, research tends to be run in accordance with Western norms, she said, and warned: “We cannot have a relatively small part of the world imposing that” perspective on the rest.

Her own university has implemented a requirement for all research proposals to consider both a Western and a Māori view of the work, she said in the first keynote plenary of the conference.

In addition to such consideration of non-Western views, she said, another “unresolved issue” for many universities is the role of the natural sciences versus that of the social sciences and humanities.

The research system has been calling for more inter- and transdisciplinary research for decades, de la Rey pointed out, without making much progress.

Role for research managers

Research managers should take more of a leadership role in bringing about the needed changes, de la Rey suggested.

For example, she said, they could propose to themselves conduct “research on research”, specifically on how to broaden considerations of impact away from narrow rankings towards greater societal relevance.

“Our research and innovation managers should be doing the research in helping us understand how to assist impact,” she said, calling for a more “consistent” approach to impact measurement.

In addition, she noted, researchers in an institution tend to have little idea of what their counterparts are doing, whereas research managers have the institution-wide scope to potentially bring complementary work together.

“Your purpose is going to be linked to the purpose of the university and society. That’s why you are there. And that’s why universities continue to exist,” she reminded listeners.

Research Professional News is media partner for the Inorms 2023 conference in Durban. Read all of the coverage here.