Agile and resilient society calls for strong universities of science & technology

Our association’s Envoy to the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union Stefan Bengtsson (President of Chalmers University of Technology) reflects on the roles of universities of S&T to future-proof agile and resilient societies.
5th November 2022
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The global challenges are, at least in our trade, a sine qua non; always present when shaping our education and research to reach the greatest possible impact and relevance. One could think this would mean our agendas remain unchanged for long periods of time. And yet, unexpected events keep occurring, forcing us to adapt and act in new ways.

When a global pandemic takes hold, all of a sudden digitalisation and cutting-edge medical research accelerate in a way we thought impossible. A war waged on European soil and an uncertain global economy mean that all at once the energy transition which had been in focus for a long time might have to be made significantly accelerated. Disruptive technological changes might have similar altering effects on society.

There is an old saying that nothing is as hard to foresee as the future, so I will not even try. But I dare say that well-functioning universities of science and technology (S&T) are crucial to meet these challenges. Here is the capacity to turn new insights into competence for the next generation of engineers and beyond, eager to solve the problems of the future. Here is the necessary science-based knowledge, with the ability to take on challenges and collaborate across borders.

This collaboration is across geographical, disciplinary and sectoral boundaries. Part of what makes universities of S&T unique societal institutions, is our challenge-driven DNA.

Our circumstances differ depending on the country in which we operate, but the principles are similar: (i) reasonably long-term conditions, (ii) a sufficiently broad scientific base and (iii) balance between short-term projects and long-term basic research. If this is in place, then we can fully assume our responsibilities and help mobilise the enormous amounts of talent, competence and skill needed.

But for us to be able to assume our responsibilities, we must be vocal on the external conditions needed. There will always be a temptation for funders to increase control by means of, for example, co-financing or through a narrow and short-term focus, in order to maximise the immediate payoff from the activities in universities of science and technology. But such narrow and short-term focus, perhaps pursued with the laudable yet misguided intention to attempt to more quickly tackle the challenges of today, will hamstring and erode the ability to tackle the issues of tomorrow.

The unique ability of universities of S&T to meet unexpected challenges depend on well-functioning regional and national systems with sustainable strategic and long-term (non-competitive) base-funding complemented by competitive funding streams which fully cover real costs, to avoid draining of strategic funding and, in the long term, the autonomy of universities, including at the European level. Future-proofing the conditions for universities of S&T enables them to assume their responsibilities and fully contribute to future-proofing an agile and resilient society.

Stefan Bengtsson is our association’s Envoy to the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the President of Chalmers University of Technology.

Photo by Anna-Lena Lundqvist

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