Realising a Future Not Yet Imagined: Thriving in an Uncertain Future

19 June 2016

We can be certain that a child born today will live in a world vastly different to the world we know. We confront a rapidly changing society and economy as we adapt to a challenging global environment.

Vice-Chancellor's Keynote Address to the 2016 Crawford Australia Leadership Forum Opening Dinner


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, partners and sponsors in this 2016 Crawford Australian Leadership Forum.

I want to begin my address by acknowledging and celebrating the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.  Let us pay our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present.

Australia is part way through a process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The Acknowledgment of Country is one way in which we help raise awareness of, and respect for, the traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander owners of the land.

An innovative nation is one that readies itself for challenges not yet imagined. 

We can be certain that a child born today will live in a world vastly different to the world we know. We confront a rapidly changing society and economy as we adapt to a challenging global environment.

The collective strength of our business, university, policy and civil sectors can build a better Australia and a better world for future generations - but the question we confront here today and in coming days is: How do we bring the best of these sectors together for the benefit of our nation?

I'm delighted welcome each of you to the 2016 Crawford Australian Leadership Forum. It is fora like this, that bring together our different sectors to deeply consider the challenges that confront us, that are the real starting point for us finding new ways to work together.

I see this bringing together of our different sectors as fundamental to the role of the national university, an institution unique in Australia, and indeed, one of few such institutions globally.

Earlier this year, I mapped out my vision for the ANU. In doing so I looked back at the history of this institution that I am now privileged to lead.

Almost seventy years ago, on 1 August 1946, the Bill establishing The Australian National University was passed by Federal Parliament and marked, in part, the beginning of modern Australia.

We were founded to develop Australia's intellectual leaders and give this country the research that would, in the language of that time, ensure Australia took its place amongst the civilised nations of the world.

ANU has been integral to the building of Australia as a prosperous country with a unique national identity. Our alumni - many of whom are in this room tonight- populate the universities of this nation and the world, the corridors of parliament and our governments, the boardrooms and engine rooms of industry, and the frontlines of civil society.

While we have much to be proud of, we are ready write the next chapter. Ready to build a contemporary national university.

That next chapter is one that we need to write with you here in this room - with our colleagues in business, in the policy community, in civil society.

The challenges confronting us today are far removed from those in the aftermath of global war 70 years ago. Just as ANU played a critical role in the post-war development of Australia, I believe the national university has a critical role in shaping contemporary Australia and its place in the world.

We can build on the legacy of people like Professor Bruce Chapman. Bruce's ground-breaking work for the Hawke Government on an income contingent loan scheme for higher education changed our education system forever.

Since 1989 the HECS system has ensured that millions of Australians could go to university regardless of the wealth of their parents while simultaneously providing our Universities with the income stream they need to be great.

The result is that the Australian University system has emerged as one of the strongest in the world. Income Contingent loans for university fees are now also used in New Zealand, Ethiopia, England, Hungary, South Africa and South Korea

Bruce has had a career between academia and government, and he continues to be one of the most influential figures in higher education policy today.

Contemporary Australia needs a highly educated population whose intellectual leaders shape national, regional and global ideas to ensure for future generations a world that is healthy, sustainable and peaceful.

It is my ambition that ANU has a profound role in shaping modern Australia by producing and nurturing intellectual leaders of national, regional and global standing.  

We are charged to undertake research of distinctive strategic value. We offer a unique combination of discipline strength across arts and humanities, social sciences, engineering, medicine and science, interdisciplinary inquiry and innovative application to the challenges facing contemporary society.

We will contribute to the policy building blocks of our nation in the areas of diplomacy, law, economics, environment and defence; through to the understanding of languages and culture of our own peoples and the peoples of our Asia-Pacific region.

It is my ambition that ANU contributes to the transformation our society.

In a contemporary mission built upon our history, I want ANU to serve Australia and our region as the Asia-Pacific leader in policy research, design and analysis.

We will seek to identify emerging areas of need for the nation and provide research and education that will equip Australia to cope with challenges not yet imagined.

We will play a national and international role bringing together the best thinkers in academia, government, business and community sectors to foster capacity for nimble responses to a rapidly changing world.

It is my ambition that we will be the national leader in breaking down the walls between universities, government, industry and civil society.

Conferences like the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum are the proof of our commitment to do this.

I can commit to you here that ANU will ensure that its people can move between university, business and government, providing linkages and experiences that reduce the barriers to working together.

Having more researchers in non-university sectors can help break down the walls. I can help,   by making it easy for our researchers to move into other sectors for periods of time. And you can help, by recognising the value of bringing into your organisations people with research skills.

People with PhDs bring different ways of seeing the world and approaching problems. Having more people with PhDs in business, in policy-making institutions and in non-government organisations, will benefit us all. 

One of the distinctive features of innovative nations is the embedding of research capacity in business. In the United States, Korea and Japan about 80 per cent of PhDs are employed in business. In most European countries it is about 60 per cent. In Australia it is 30 per cent. It isn't an overwhelming challenge to change that.

We do live in a world of grand challenges. Grand challenges that we can work together to solve and that we can only solve if we work together.

How do we make sure that the region we live in is prosperous and safe? How do we make sure the environment we live in is safe and can support our growing population? What are our next sources of energy as we transition to a world less dependent on fossil fuels? How do we make sure our population is healthy and ages well? How do we reconcile Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia?

I want to share with you tonight some of the ways my institution is working on the grand challenges. We work with many of you in the room on these challenges. And I hope that in coming years we will work with many more of you.

We live in a region that shapes the order of the world. The economic transformation of Asia has brought Australia great economic opportunity. It also means profound political and strategic changes.

This poses great challenges for Australian foreign and strategic policies as we try to work out where Asia's order is going, what place Australia should aspire to in it, and how we can best win that place. Australia's place in the Asia-Pacific is one of the policy issues that has been central to ANU research since our founding. It is an area in which we have a proud history of shaping national debate, informing policy makers and building relationships across borders that develop mutual understanding.

Professor Michael Wesley, who leads the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, identifies the chronic weakness of states and the breakdown of political order across large swathes of the planet as one of the greatest challenges to face us.

While we have developed strong policy frameworks for dealing with other security challenges from nuclear weapons, to conventional aggression, to coordinated action on pandemics, we have as yet to come up with a way to deal with state fragility and breakdown.

Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on state building interventions since the end of the Cold War, the problems of state dysfunction - not only in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia, but also closer to home in Timor L'este, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands - seem not only to be persisting and spreading, but getting worse.

The Bell School draws on its deep linkages with practitioners on the ground who deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis to study the political and social dynamics of instability and dysfunction in the Pacific, South East Asia and South Asia.

Work in the School is integral to the development of the concept of "hybridity", which argues that buttressing political order in other countries and cultures requires combining modern governance techniques with local concepts of power, leadership, representation and legitimacy.

This collaborative approach with policy practitioners allows the School to see the results of its research incorporated into policy and implemented on the ground - providing an invaluable opportunity for feedback loops into further research.

Over in the National Security College, led by Professor Rory Medcalf, they are working across the university, with government and the private sector, to take on the big security challenges of this connected century.

The old order, where there were clear lines between domestic and international security, between the interests of government and the private sector, between academic disciplines, is breaking down.

The most profound security challenges ahead are those that occur at the nexus of international and domestic policy. Cyber threats pay no heed to borders, and make little distinction between national interest and commercial interests.  

Cyber intrusions on major corporations can do harm, for instance, to their Intellectual Property and competitiveness, the national economy, the privacy of individuals and the security of the state - all at once.

So the best responses need to be a collaboration across government, industry and the expertise in academia.  The National Security College is working across disciplines with our College of Engineering and Computer Science as an important partner for government and industry in training, teaching, research and trusted dialogue in this critical field.

The NSC is convening expert consultations to shape government policies like the cyber security strategy, providing training for government officials alongside private sector executives, and working with international research partners to develop theories and recommendations on how statecraft and deterrence need to adapt for this new world.

Human security does not just rest on the interactions between states. We depend upon the environment in which we live to give us the basic things we need for life. Our climate is changing and our environment it changing because of it, presenting one of the grandest challenges our world has faced.

Our Climate Change Institute under the leadership of Professor Mark Howden is working to change the dialogue of climate change from one based on threat and risk and separate from other issues to an informed conversation about value-generating adaptation and emission-reduction opportunities integrated with other issues.

This empowers universities, civil society, industry and governments to respond proactively and strategically rather than reactively and tactically.  And that collaboration could be a major source of innovation from both climate adaptation and in reducing emissions. The world is hungry for the sort of pragmatic solutions Australia has a history of developing: there are major opportunities to export our climate change-driven innovations for both aid and trade.

ANU researchers are working across the spectrum on climate change from basic research on sea level rise and developing climate-change-ready crops, applied research on carbon sequestration in forests and energy efficiency in industry, institutional analysis looking at legal barriers, research on more effectively communicating the science, high-level involvement at meetings such as the Paris Conference of Parties and high-level representation on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Our economists in the Crawford School of Public Policy are at the forefront of developing policy solutions to transition to clean energy while maintaining economic prosperity.

ANU is one of the global partners in the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways study that influenced Paris Agreement and we will be involved in research to turn that vision into reality.

Professor Warwick McKibbin's work on mechanisms for emissions reduction has informed policy makers around the world and work by Professor Frank Jotzo on a market mechanism to help with transition away from high emitting brown coal power stations has piqued the interest industry and policy makers.

Our work on environmental challenges is as local as it is global.

One of our major challenges is to integrate environmental values and management with economic values and management and human well-being. The Fenner School of Environment and Society is working at the forefront of these issues and leading advances in Environmental and Economic Accounting.

This coming week, the Fenner School will for the first time release a set of Economic and Environmental Accounts for the Central Highlands forest region of Victoria. The account uses the international standard developed by the United Nations System of Economic and Environmental Accounts and draws together values of water, timber, biodiversity, carbon, tourism and agriculture in new ways to demonstrate the employment and other economic values of natural assets and their use - thereby providing critical new perspectives for making decisions on how to best manage those assets for economic and environmental benefits.

The Fenner School is now planning to extend this work into the farming sector where a cross-disciplinary project with the ANU College of Business and Economics and the ANU National Institute of Mental Health is developing a major agricultural sustainability initiative in collaboration with philanthropic partners.

Improving human health is an ever-constant grand challenge. Prevention of disease, treatment of disease and developing better and more efficient health systems are a continuous human endeavour.

As we better understand the human genome, personalised medicine becomes an option to better and more precisely treat disease. We are in the midst of an enormous technological change in health care, a change that while potentially improving individual outcomes poses enormous policy challenges for health care systems.

Two weeks ago, we announced a collaboration with our ACT government to establish the Canberra Clinical Genomics centre, which will work to work to cure Canberra patients with complex diseases by sequencing their genome and finding treatments that are personalised to their condition. It will link into our Centre for Personalised Immunology that does medical research with collaborators around the world tackling diseases such as lupus and immune deficiency.

While we make these exciting advances in medical treatment, health care is for most economies a real policy challenge. In Australia expenditure has grown faster than the broader economy and unless we can find a way to reduce the health costs, most government expenditure will go on treating chronic diseases.

Prevention is better than cure but yet health policy discussions remain strongly focused on treating disease. The most important behavioural risk factors for these diseases are not medical risks: unhealthy diet, physical inactivity; alcohol use, smoking. Each of these is linked to economic and social factors.

The causes of these chronic diseases are affected by policies in all sectors. There are strong economic arguments for investment in the social determinants of health - improving employment prospects, support healthy child development, designing cities in a way that puts people at the centre - to prevent people from having to use hospitals and expensive treatments.

We have a society where the poorest 20 per cent of the population can still expect to die younger (six years on average) compared to the richest 20 per cent of the population.

Australians who are more socially disadvantaged and Indigenous Australians also have a higher risk of depression, diabetes, heart disease and cancers. If all social economic groups had the same burden of disease as the most well-off we would see a 21 per cent reduction in the overall burden.

We are part of the National Health and Medical Research Council Centre of Research Excellence in the Social Determinants of Health Equity, a global collaboration devoted to studying how government policies shape how healthy we are, how long we live, and how this differs depending on who we are.  Using agenda setting theory, it looks at factors affecting if and how health equity issues get on the political and policy agenda in four cases studies - trade; paid parental leave; the Northern Territory intervention focused on Indigenous Australians, and primary health care. We are interested in individual, institutional and system capacity required for successful equity focused policy implementation. Ultimately, the work of this group will inform policy for a healthier and fairer Australia.

Better policy that leads to a better society is central to that work. It is also central to the work that ANU plays in reconciliation between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians.

I believe that we must play a leadership role in the reconciliation. ANU should be the destination of choice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intellectual leaders as a place of education, of research and of policy. Our work in Indigenous Studies spans the breadth of the institution and makes us home to Indigenous leaders, including former Australian of the Year, Professor Mick Dodson, who leads the National Centre for Indigenous Studies.

We have a policy powerhouse in the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, a unique national and international centre that operates in a complex political arena. Since 1990 it has established an unrivalled reputation and track record in a difficult public policy area of national significance. The centre works in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, government, civil society and industry to further the social and economic development and empowerment of Indigenous people throughout Australia


I've given you just a small snapshot of the some of the grand challenges that ANU is working to solve. Each of these we work on with partners in government, business and civil society. They are all about innovation. And they span the social sciences, humanities, medicine, engineering and science. 

In addressing these grand challenges with business and government, we are educating not just the next generation of scholars, but the people who will populate Australian businesses, government, and who are already creating innovative new companies. 

But we can do more. For Australia to ready itself for challenges unknown, we need a culture and policy settings that encourages risk-taking and new ways of doing things together.

We need bipartisan support to provide a stable policy environment for research and innovation, to quit underfunding research and make sure we have the right incentives for universities to provide high-quality education to our next generation, regardless of social economic background.

We need to provide the incentives and capacity for universities, business, government and civil society to take risks. If we don't take risks and bet on ideas that we can't imagine where they will lead us, we end up being simply a consumer of knowledge, rather than a creator. 

For research and innovation to be a real driver of our economy in the future, we have to be a knowledge creator.  Innovation isn't about turning what we already know into new things, it's about seeking to understand what we don't yet know, to explore and discover.

The Crawford Leadership Forum is an example of how Academia, Business and Government can come together - I am excited about what I am going to learn in the next 2 days, and I hope you will be too.

Most of all, we need the courage to take action and step outside of our comfort zones. We in this room are going to spend the next few days talking about the enormous challenges we face. But we also have the capacity between us to start a different conversation about a grand coalition to solve the grand problems we know, and to ready our nation and our world for a future we can't yet imagine.

Professor Brian Schmidt AC


The Australian National University