The intellectual findings of the world’s tertiary institutions are resulting in planet-saving solutions and paving the way for a low-carbon future. What does it take to make it happen?

Forty years ago, Canterbury University's Dr Andrew Matthews and Dr Reid Basher began work with Edith Farkas at MetService. The researchers were analysing the results of Farkas's ozone testing measurements, while the students were researching the results. As a source of information on what was happening to the ozone layer in the Southern Hemisphere and particularly over Antarctica, the work would later turn out to be of crucial importance.

Fast forward to 1987 when, armed with the contribution of those researchers, as well as the work from a multitude of other New Zealand scientists, a NIWA delegation consisting of just two people - a scientist and an engineer - attended the first meetings of the Montreal Protocol - the international treaty which has proved to be the saviour of the atmosphere's ozone. That treaty came into effect 25 years ago.

Atmosphere models of what would have happened had there been no intervention read like some apocalyptic horror story - by now the ozone layer would be almost completely wiped out and have caused a catastrophic collapse in food stocks - plants simply would have withered under the harsh UV light.

Speaking recently to Water and Atmosphere, NIWA's science journal, Tom Clarkson - the retired scientist who was part of that delegation - said: "The science focus directly contributed to the signing of the agreement. I was part of the inner group that did all the negotiations."

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New Zealand's contribution is a great example of the country punching above its weight, and the impact that timely and relevant research can have.

With the planet facing greater challenges than ever in human history, the contributions of science and the research being carried out at our tertiary institutions is vital.

Your mission should you choose to accept it

Like the mantra of Mission Impossible - 'Your mission, should you choose to accept it...' - students at Lincoln University are given a sense of their potential and their global responsibilities before they even enrol. The external marketing of the university gives a sense of the goal: to inspire students to go on to solve the crises of the world. There's even a 'Global Challenges Sponsorship', currently open to applicants with the right mix of ambition and ability.

Once enrolled, Lincoln students are all required to sit three compulsory papers during their first two years, which give both an overview of the "land-based" issues facing the world and the skills to collect and analyse data and information about those problems, and devise solutions.

Jeremy Baker. Photo / Supplied
Jeremy Baker. Photo / Supplied

The 'Sustainable Futures' paper undertaken by second year students is even more ambitious. Students from across the university's three faculties work together on a real world problem and come up with solutions together.

Initially the approach drew some skepticism, says Lincoln University Deputy Vice Chancellor Jeremy Baker, but that has changed. "We have huge support from the academics now and students seem to have found it really interesting in terms of really opening up their views of the wide range of issues that we face."

Baker believes that Lincoln's approach is unique in the Southern Hemisphere. "While we are very much focused on academic excellence and independence, we have got a very clear mission for the university."

Baker says that the broad goals of the university are; to feed the world; protect the future and; live well. "We see those three as being an interconnected whole and they're all important; you can't really do any one of them without the other. Those themes are woven through our research strategy and that research informs what we teach."

'Responsibility to create and impart knowledge'

Professor Stuart McCutcheon, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland, believes that the contribution of universities to tackling major issues cannot be overstated.

"I can't think of an issue that would be of significance to humanity that universities aren't addressing and contributing to. There are two major contributions that we make; educating people to contribute to society; and research. The thing that defines universities is that we have a responsibility to both create and impart knowledge through the combination of research and education."

I can't think of an issue that would be of significance to humanity that universities aren't addressing and contributing to.

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McCutcheon believes that the very nature of universities has changed. "For example, if you go back to universities in New Zealand 80 years ago I don't think that they had the focus on research that we have now. They were more teaching institutions. Today it is recognised that universities can do a lot to address problems.

"The role of universities in training researchers and original thinkers has been enhanced quite significantly by the evolution of society that is strongly based on knowledge and less so on beliefs and prejudices."

McCutcheon believes that, following the global financial crisis, emphasis on the commercialisation of ideas increased, which manifested itself at The University of Auckland as The Icehouse, an incubator which brings ideas to market.

"We are certainly very active in that area. We work with The Icehouse to create young entrepreneurs through the business school, but it's not the only way we get out there. Our researchers are very active publishing, speaking to communities, writing books - a whole range of ways to get information to society. The commercialisation is just one part of that."

Richard Blaikie. Photo / Supplied
Richard Blaikie. Photo / Supplied

Boost in government interest

Massey University Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey agrees: "Universities have a clear role now of moving away from simply identifying problems and providing research on the problem to talking about how the problem might be resolved, and working with governments or business on resolving those problems."

He says they ask what are the big problems that the university has capacity to be able to contribute to - both understanding the problem and providing an answer. "They've got to be issues that we have capacity for, in terms of resources, staff numbers, expertise etc - when we have that kind of capacity then we are beginning to identify those as major areas of responsibility.

Universities have a clear role now of moving away from simply identifying problems and providing research on the problem to talking about how the problem might be resolved, and working with governments or business on resolving those problems.

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Maharey says the government has become more savvy at using universities to figure out solutions, by funding particular studies.

"For example, through Food HQ in Palmerston North, of which Massey is the cornerstone, we are working on a food safety initiative for the government. They have identified that as a major area of interest for the country, with problems that have to be resolved - such as what happened with the Fonterra scare. We have put together a proposal on that and hopefully we'll hear soon that we have been successful."

The government is looking ahead and trying to work out what will become an issue and what do about it, and they have a number of ways to do that - such as through the 11 National Science Challenges and the Research Excellence Centres

Challenges for the next generation

Waikato University Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Alister Jones believes a foundation in the issues the world faces is important: "If we are going to be educating the next generation, we want to introduce them to the challenges that they are going to face in their lives.

He is a big advocate for an interdisciplinary approach to solving issues. "For example, in our work restoring Lake Rotorua and work we are doing in Asia around restoring lakes and rivers and monitoring their health in real time. We have an interdisciplinary approach - we bring not only the science but also engineers - you can't solve these problems often without a major scientific or engineering intervention. Economics also comes into it."

Jones say as well as coming up with a scientific or engineering solution to a problem, the university must also come up with a policy framework for future management. "I think we are getting much better at taking a systems approach to these things, rather than treating things as silos."

"Universities have a clear role now of moving away from simply identifying problems and providing research on the problem to talking about how the problem might be resolved, and working with governments or business on resolving those problems."

Caroline Seelig. Photo / Supplied
Caroline Seelig. Photo / Supplied

Ensuring access for all

University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Blaikie believes that the university is in a strong position to make change. "With 1600 academic and research-only staff at the University of Otago we have an amazing resource that can be brought to bear on major issues and challenges.

"For example, for the challenge to make Aotearoa tobacco-free by 2025 groups from our public health, biomedical and marketing departments have collected under the banner ASPIRE2025 to undertake the research and design new interventions that will help achieve this goal.

"Work is being undertaken across many fronts, including understanding the role of point-of-sale advertising and plain packaging, looking at trends of smoking in different age groups, and designing new nicotine replacement delivery mechanisms and ways of getting these out into the community."

It's one of 14 University of Otago Research Themes, which along with its 12 Research Centres and a multitude of other groups and applied research units are attacking major challenges.

"Another example is in climate change," says Blaikie. "We have many specialist groups looking at issues from energy, environment and human behaviours that contribute to climate change, as well as adaptation and mitigation strategies. These collect under the single umbrella of the Otago Climate Change network that allows crosscutting themes to be explored and issues developed."

There's a growing gaps between the haves and have-nots, both in the developing world and the developed world.

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The university also hosts the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities and the Centre for Sustainability. The latter conducts research in the areas of agriculture and food, energy, environment and people.

Blaikie says that the university offers interdepartmental teaching programmes, such as environmental science, where students learn across departments, from environment, environmental toxicology and energy specialists.

Otago Innovation Limited (OIL) is the university-owned company that is responsible for protecting university IP and developing business opportunities, together with the Research and Enterprise Office. The university own the intellectual property it develops and as a result takes a financial position in business opportunities it develops.

Successful spin-off companies include Pacific Edge Limited, an example in the area of cancer diagnostics and currently the only company on the NZX50 that has come out of a New Zealand university. It has a current market capitalisation of close to $300 million.

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, with some 32,000 distance learning students on its books, makes a huge impact, particularly in the area of the social wellbeing of New Zealanders, says chief executive Dr Caroline Seelig.

"There's a growing gaps between the haves and have-nots, both in the developing world and the developed world," she says.

"The fundamental philosophy of open distance learning is that we provide access and education to all, and that gives people skills that will help them gain employment or improve their lives or their families' lives.

"It has a big part to play in terms of social justice. It allows everyone a chance to gain an education at a time and place - and a pace - that suits them."

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