COVID-19 starts push for more interdisciplinary research
July 25, 2020

By Yojana Sharma

Original post in University World News

While many university leaders around the world fear post-COVID budget cuts due to squeezed economies and – for many host countries – a drop in fee income from foreign students staying at home, top universities in Hong Kong and Singapore say their research funding is relatively secure, which enables them to take a longer view.

The disruption caused by pandemic lockdowns affected day-to-day university work and research, but COVID-19’s impact on all sectors of society has opened the window to changes in research towards tackling societal challenges that require a longer perspective and an interdisciplinary approach.

“We should think out of the box and [take] the long-term perspective,” Wei Shyy, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), told University World News. “We are not just trying to fight this particular pandemic. There are many large humanity-level challenges.”

Research needs to be “purpose-driven” and interdisciplinary, Shyy said, adding that while this is often talked about, until now it has not been accorded sufficient energy or motivation.

Shyy said there had been a move towards a more short-term approach to research in recent years. But as a result of COVID-19, “we have seen how connected many issues are, not just science and technology, but also policy, psychology, economics, culture and many other areas.”

The university is encouraging academics and researchers to be aware of societal challenges in selecting research topics, even in fundamental research.

“It’s not just pandemic research, but the pandemic has been an example. We are not de-emphasising any particular research area, just encouraging more mission-oriented thinking at the earliest stage,” Shyy said.

“The research focus will definitely change to look at the more pressing issues of the aftermath of COVID-19, as well as some of the important challenges uncovered by COVID-19,” Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore (NUS), told University World News.

“Singapore has always been very forward-looking in not cutting the research budget,” Tan noted.

In late May, ahead of a general election, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled an early budget for 2021, against the backdrop of the International Monetary Fund’s prediction that Asia, which saw the fastest growth globally in the past decade, would see zero growth in 2020 – the worst growth performance in 60 years.

Heng announced SG$20 billion (US$14 billion) in basic and applied research funding for 2021-25, to also include research into “solutions for some of the world’s major challenges”. The current five-year research budget to 2021 is around SG$19 billion.

“COVID-19 has given us an opportunity. We have resources now and this is perhaps a good time to make big changes to put us in a better position for the future. We do not want change to be forced on us, but to lead the change,” said Tan.

With research funding secured, “we need to relook at our systems and how to make them more robust, to be able to adapt to shocks and shockproof our institutions and our community. But it also begs the question of the relevance of the university. The way we teach, we learn, the way we do research,” Tan said, referring to the need for a cross-disciplinary approach that will affect all areas.

“Collaborations will be very important because we do not have a wide spectrum of skill sets and knowledge for a complex problem like a pandemic. COVID-19 throws at us problems and challenges that no single discipline is able to address. Because we don’t have all the strengths in one university, collaboration between universities will be important,” says Tan.

“Universities have to depend on globalisation and the free flow of information because this is how we do research. We have to leverage off one another,” Tan added. “We hope that universities can stop the trend of de-globalisation and perhaps regionalisation, which we feel is not a good trend.”

Even during the pandemic, NUS set up a major new collaboration with Peking University in Beijing on public health crisis management to exchange case studies on COVID-19 control in China and Singapore.

“Peking University will have access to a lot of data and information, vital for COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccine development,” Tan added, while Singapore points to a very high survival rate as something other countries can emulate in improving public health systems.

Climate change and other global challenges

Shyy and Tan both mention climate change and climate change mitigation and resilience as future challenges to focus on, as well as artificial intelligence, automation and Industry 4.0.

“During the pandemic crisis we noticed information security and cyber-security were threatened, so that is very important,” Tan said, pointing to the need to invest in backup IT systems. He added that COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of Industry 4.0.

“A lot of this is already on our radar, but COVID-19 has accentuated the importance of this area and that we have to work on this much faster.”

He pointed to longer term food security as a new research area, referring to the disruption in food supplies from neighbouring countries during the pandemic. Singapore depends on imports for 95% of its food, with only 5% produced nationally.

“Over the next 10 years we need to increase that to 30%,” Tan said. “It is possible with urban farming, agritech and aquatech, and we need to research these.”

University research collaborations slowed during the pandemic due to travel restrictions, but the university leaders said they will become stronger again.

COVID-19 research

Universities like HKUST and NUS, which serve densely populated urban areas, were quick to align research to the needs of the health system and society.

The campuses at HKUST and NUS were mainly closed during their respective lockdowns. But in Singapore some 200 researchers continued with COVID-19 related research through lockdown in a shift system to minimise contact, developing among other things a ‘symptom checker’, now widely used in Singapore, which helped in stepping up COVID-19 testing.

The Duke-NUS Medical School identified the neutralising antibodies for serological testing for highly accurate testing for antibodies that work against the COVID-19 virus.

Some HKUST researchers were already involved in research stemming from the 2003 SARS outbreak which could be re-geared for COVID-19, for example, an anti-microbial liquid which can be sprayed on surfaces and is effective for three months.

Another project brought into practice was an autonomous vehicle to deliver food and medical supplies without needing a driver. “Usually universities are considered to be a kind of ivory tower, but we have never been so closely linked to aspects of daily life,” Shyy said.

Push towards interdisciplinarity

Beyond the immediate crisis, the consensus among university leaders of the need for more interdisciplinary research is strong. Agile institutions like HKUST and NUS are determined to use changes in attitudes in academia to push through important reforms at the institutional level.

Tan pointed to his own plans for NUS for “tearing down structures that inhibit interdisciplinarity”.

“We are going to have a big overhaul of our academic system, by freeing up the structure and injecting more flexibility for departments and faculties to collaborate across disciplines. I’m also changing the financing and budgeting of our NUS system to facilitate this,” he said, adding that the changes will affect every university faculty and department.

He acknowledged it will not be easy and there will be resistance within the university community. But the goal and timetable are clear. After changing the institutional structure, “the next step is to build a critical mass of faculty passionate about interdisciplinarity,” he said, noting that he believes he can achieve these changes within two years.

“This would also have to factor in how we recognise and reward faculty members,” he said.

But convincing students could take longer. “We need to ensure interdisciplinary research can feed on education and vice versa. It’s important for learners to accept this. We will have to work hard to make sure our students buy in.

“Students would be easier to convince when we expose them to real life problems, to internships and experiences outside of the university in the real world,” Tan said.

“We are trying to get the employers on board and, I guess, once senior students have gone through this and have seen the benefit, they will impress on junior students to ask for more.”

New campus

In Hong Kong, Shyy is keenly aware that interdisciplinary structures are extremely difficult to bring into an existing university, even one as young as HKUST, which was founded in 1991.

“You have a disciplinary establishment – the departments, the schools – already in place. They are here to stay and they should stay, but on top of the disciplines you want to build bridges which is very hard because that is not human nature,” he said.

“We need a reset, but the reset cannot replace what you’re already doing in your current place. That’s why we decided to have a new campus devoted to cross-disciplinary pursuits, starting with the academic structure. It won’t have traditional disciplinary units, everything there will be flexible and adaptive.”

Shyy is referring to the new campus being developed by HKUST across the border in China’s southern province of Guangdong, with funding from the Guangzhou city government. It is scheduled to open in 2022 and will eventually double the faculty numbers and size of the existing university in Hong Kong.

It will offer cross-disciplinary graduate programmes, for example, in autonomous systems, big data, public policy, population and socio-economic development. Other areas are sustainable energy, environment, equity or inequality of wealth, urban policies and city planning and development.

Some 250 graduate students have already been enrolled, starting their programmes on the Hong Kong campus.

It will have new, additional resources. “So we can have healthy research without upsetting the existing work that we are good at.”

Shyy described the role of the twin campuses, with the current Hong Kong campus continuing with discipline-based and interdisciplinary research. “But from the ground up the new campus will be cross-disciplinary with disciplinary depth and support drawn from our current campus, which in turn will tap into the China campus’s cross-disciplinary energy and resources,” he said.

“There will be two systems which don’t have to force each other to compromise. They will run in parallel, and we will leverage the talents and the approach from each other.”

While the project has been in planning for two years, “the pandemic provides even stronger motivation,” Shyy noted. “Coincidently, it is a very timely opportunity.”

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