Release unprecedented transformative forces

Our President, Rik Van de Walle, writes in IAU Horizons on our association's strategic vision and activities supporting universities of S&T to expand upon their tradition in releasing transformative forces to meet societal challenges.
13th May 2022
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This contribution was originally published in IAU Horizons issue, vol. 27, no. 1, 2022 by the International Association of Universities.

Meeting the varied and significant challenges facing society will require universities of Science and Technology (S&T) to expand upon their tradition in releasing transformative forces. In the past, universities such as Ghent University and the other members of CESAER have already demonstrated their impact in this respect through their contributions to bringing S&T into private homes, exploiting natural resources and boosting industrialisation. Given the magnitude of local and global challenges of the coming years and decades, we argue that leading research-based universities have no other option than to release unprecedented transformative forces to help tackle them.

In order to strengthen S&T, reinvent education and training in this field and boost the corresponding innovations and services to society, CESAER embarked on the development of a strategic vision for our Members and identified the following four major challenges:

i. The tremendous local and global challenges such as climate change, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, social exclusion, increasing inequality of the share of wealth, the global spread of viruses, and cultural, economic and social recovery, resilience and adaptation;

ii. The complexities engendered by rapidly developing key technologies (such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, nanotechnologies and life-science technologies) as well as the exponential growth of(scientific) data and digitalisation, as developments in S&T are often outpacing political and societal developments;

iii. The very different geopolitical order we find ourselves in, with the globalist and liberal world order under jeopardy, a changing superpower landscape, growing intolerance towards divergent opinions and increasing political and private interference with academia;

iv. The more complex expectation patterns of society with regard to universities, who, for instance, must create jobs and boost economic growth, safeguard scientific integrity, academic freedom and institutional autonomy, resume social responsibility, contribute to ecological, economic and social sustainability, keep knowledge safe, and control the export of their S&T for (national) security reasons.

For us at CESAER, reinventing higher education means to enable universities to expand upon their tradition in releasing transformative forces and act as autonomous agents of change. At the core of these endeavours are (i) the delivery of excellent investigator-driven frontier research, (ii) the offering of cutting-edge and innovative S&T education and training to a diverse, open and truthful student body, and (iii) the transfer and management of S&T towards multiple players, including governments, public services, business and industry, and non-governmental organisations. Collectively, we aim at (i) providing inspiring spaces for researchers, innovators, teachers, students and administrators, (ii) deploying international, open and eco-friendly campuses, and (iii) transmitting equality, diversity, inclusion, ethics, democratic citizenship and European values to all who are involved in our academic work. Essentially, universities as autonomous players in society are advised to engage with civil society and shape knowledge societies for a sustainable future as both regional and global players.

For us, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) thereby constitute the most important current political agenda and narrative. Together, with over 1,400 volunteers and leaders of our members, we aim at advancing the contribution of S&T to achieving them. In order to amplify our impact, we partnered with the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), Science Europe and the University of Strathclyde, and launched a joint call for collective global action. Together with these allies, we will take stock of the follow up on this call during the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference and reach out to new partners.

Over the next two years we will take our collective strategic vision further, not least through our dedicated task forces driven by volunteers from our Members, by exploring new pathways and reinventing the contributions of S&T, education and training, and innovations. We thereby will pay particular attention to equal opportunities and equity, diversity, and inclusion.

In light of the demonstrated transformative forces of universities of S&T, we at CESAER intend to inspire ourselves and others concerning important issues, such as:

(i) the safeguarding of key technologies as global public goods, (ii) linking Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) with Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH), (iii) promoting openness of research, education and innovation, (iv) advancing systems thinking and (engineering) approaches, (v) strengthening ethical frameworks and values, (vi) professionalising the management and operation of university-related infrastructures, (vii) and assuming university and societal leadership.

Collectively, our member universities have committed to the ‘adoption of a global perspective’ when reinventing their academic endeavours. The achievements, pivotal roles and ongoing work of UNESCO and IAU are therefore of greatest importance to us. We would be delighted to explore closer cooperation with UNESCO and IAU when reinventing the catalytic roles of universities with regard to the local and inational responses towards achieving the UN SDGs in their home countries, and when joining forces with partners worldwide with a view on amplifying impact at the global level.

For further information, please contact our Communication & Outreach Officer, Gary Paterson

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