Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald from the University of Sydney Association of Professors re “Unis must rethink the balance of teaching and research, says Spence”
11 December 2020
Dear Editors of SMH,
The University of Sydney Association of Professors (USAP) has adopted the following collective response to comments made by Vice Chancellor Michael Spence in Jordan Baker’s article, which appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on Dec 5th, titled “Unis must rethink the balance of teaching and research, says Spence”:
In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald dated Dec 5th, outgoing Sydney University Vice Chancellor Michael Spence questioned the value of our research contribution, citing the costly nature of funding “minor incremental things”. He also described our work as a “research industry” which requires people to “churn out things”.
The discovery of mRNA in 1961, and all the “minor incremental things” which followed, led to the successful development of the COVID19 vaccine last week – at an unprecedented speed of within 365 days of the initial outbreak. This was not a miracle but rather the culmination of decades of trial and error by the scientific community, with much of the results going unnoticed by the public.
“Minor incremental things” produced by the “research industry” are so ubiquitous in enhancing our lives that we have the luxury of ignoring them. To function properly, the GPS on our smartphones must account for the theory of gravity developed in 1915 and all the “minor incremental things” that followed in its wake. The development of quantum mechanics in 1920, and all the “minor incremental things” which followed, made MRI the state-of-the-art imaging method we rely on today to make life-saving decisions.
Without a crystal ball we cannot distinguish which one of the “minor incremental things” will eventually become a key piece of the puzzle saving the world from the next disaster, be it human-made or natural. As such, broad support for research should be one of the cornerstones of universities everywhere. Before objecting that this would be an inefficient and costly model with no immediate return on investment, we should pause to ponder the humanitarian and socioeconomic toll of its absence.
University of Sydney Association of Professors
The University of Sydney