Pas­toral care gives re­gion­als the edge

Univer­si­ties out­side big cities ben­e­fit from close con­nec­tions to land and com­mu­nity, writes San­dra Hard­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Research Round - Up -

CON­TRARY to the be­lief in some quar­ters, not all the top- flight re­search is be­ing per­formed in Group of Eight univer­si­ties, or even the cap­i­tal cities. In the sticks, Aus­tralia’s re­gional univer­si­ties, ben­e­fit­ing from their smaller size and coun­try lo­ca­tions, are pro­duc­ing top- class work.

As He­lene Marsh, dean of grad­u­ate re­search stud­ies and re­searcher at James Cook Univer­sity, puts it: ‘‘ It’s about place.’’

Place is a defin­ing fea­ture of the re­search en­deav­our of coun­try univer­si­ties.

The power of place, an in­ten­sity ex­plained by the deeply per­sonal con­nec­tion be­tween re­searchers, univer­si­ties and their com­mu­ni­ties, a crit­i­cal mass of com­mu­nity in­ter­est and sup­port and hu­man scale, drives this high- qual­ity, high­im­pact re­search.

They may dif­fer in their his­tory, their in­tent and plans for the fu­ture, and in their re­search ca­pac­ity and fo­cus, but all re­gional univer­si­ties have a com­mit­ment to their re­gion.

In many cases they are the only univer­sity in the re­gion. Their smaller size com­pared to the city- based com­pre­hen­sives is a virtue as well as a re­sourc­ing chal­lenge. They are univer­si­ties on a hu­man scale.

A re­cent Melbourne In­sti­tute re­port re­vealed that doc­toral stu­dents at some of th­ese univer­si­ties are among the most sat­is­fied with their ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, while stu­dents at Go8 univer­si­ties were less sat­is­fied.

That is not sur­pris­ing given the smaller num­bers of doc­toral stu­dents in re­gional univer­si­ties and the per­sonal at­ten­tion they re­ceive as a re­sult.

The power of place, cou­pled with hu­man scale, de­liv­ers an acute aware­ness of and a drive to ad­dress key is­sues — en­vi­ron­men­tal, so­cial, eco­nomic, health- re­lated, in­dus­trial — rel­e­vant to a par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion and be­yond.

For re­gional re­searchers, lo­ca­tion is not only the lab­o­ra­tory, it is their home. They care about the is­sues of their com­mu­ni­ties while still speak­ing to the is­sues ex­er­cis­ing par­tic­u­lar in­ter­na­tional schol­arly com­mu­ni­ties.

The Univer­sity of South­ern Queens­land is de­vel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies such as im­age anal­y­sis sys­tems that are be­ing used for species iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of an­i­mals, weed iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, yield and con­di­tion mon­i­tor­ing of plants and crops and wa­ter mon­i­tor­ing. And their work on en­gi­neered fi­bre com­pos­ites has re­sulted in the de­vel­op­ment of new ma­te­ri­als used in bridge build­ing in Aus­tralia, Rus­sia and the US.

Re­searchers at South­ern Cross Univer­sity are us­ing molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy tech­niques to find valu­able genes in Aus­tralian wild seed crops, fo­cus­ing on re­silience and qual­ity traits, in­clud­ing drought re­sis­tance and yield.

Other work has re­sulted in the dis­cov­ery of the genes as­so­ci­ated with fra­grance in rice, hold­ing in prospect new fra­grant va­ri­eties of other ce­real crops.

At Charles Sturt Univer­sity an agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy has been de­vel­oped that con­trols weeds, re­duces chem­i­cal use and pro­vides for more ef­fi­cient seed­ing with less trac­tor fuel use as well as re­duced soil ero­sion.

Other CSU re­searchers work­ing on wa­ter and salt bal­ances for ir­ri­ga­tion ar­eas along the Mur­rumbidgee River have iden­ti­fied and quan­ti­fied a wide range of sav­ings through re­duc­ing losses in the wa­ter de­liv­ery sys­tem and on- farm wa­ter man­age­ment.

Univer­sity of the Sun­shine Coast re­searchers are work­ing on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of na­tive hard­wood hy­brids suit­able for sus­tain­able wood pro­duc­tion on mar­ginal agri­cul­tural lands. Work­ing with re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Iowa, USC re­searchers are work­ing on the hu­man health im­pli­ca­tions of equine in­fluenza.

The Univer­sity of New Eng­land, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the NSW Gov­ern­ment, has de­vel­oped an ad­vanced ge­netic eval­u­a­tion for beef cat­tle called Breed­plan.

Breed­plan has been com­mer­cialised and is es­ti­mated to have a net present value to the in­dus­try of sev­eral hun­dred mil­lions dol­lars; it is al­ready used in 14 coun­tries.

Cen­tral Queens­land Univer­sity’s at­ten­tion to rail­way en­gi­neer­ing has re­sulted in the de­vel­op­ment of elec­tronic con­trol brak­ing for freight trains, de­liv­er­ing an es­ti­mated 50 per cent sav­ing on cur­rent tech­nol­ogy brake fit- out.

Re­searchers at CQU are also in­volved in solv­ing prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with min­ing waste wa­ter and de­vel­op­ing 3D imag­ing ca­pa­bil­ity that helps main­te­nance en­gi­neers iden­tify the cause of cracked or cor­roded equip­ment, such as pipes and drive shafts.

Charles Dar­win Univer­sity re­searchers have de­vel­oped tech­niques to use weaver ants as bi­o­log­i­cal con­trol agents for trop­i­cal tree crops.

This sys­tem has been adopted in north­ern Aus­tralia, Viet­nam, Thai­land and Sri Lanka, re­sult­ing in higher prof­its, bet­ter fruit and the erad­i­ca­tion of residue on the fruit or in the en­vi­ron­ment.

At JCU, along with our fo­cus on coral reef ecol­ogy and marine bi­ol­ogy, re­searchers work on a variety of prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with the trop­i­cal world.

En­vi­ron­ment, wa­ter, trop­i­cal agri­cul­ture and an­i­mal hus­bandry, aqua­cul­ture, re­search re­lated to res­i­dent min­ing and met­al­lif­er­ous in­dus­tries, tourism, biose­cu­rity and zoonoses, is­sues re­lated to trop­i­cal health and medicine, such as dengue fever and fi­lar­i­a­sis, oc­cupy re­searchers.

JCU’s Cy­clone Test­ing Sta­tion, born of cy­clones Althea and Tracy in the 1970s, has de­fined re­lated build­ing codes and prac­tices in Aus­tralia. Th­ese projects and many oth­ers across the dis­ci­plines are funded ex­ter­nally, of­ten through na­tion­ally com­pet­i­tive grants and of­ten in part­ner­ship with lo­cal en­ti­ties, and they are ef­fec­tive as well.

Of course, some re­search in re­gions is un­der­taken by city re­searchers. It in­volves field trips, fly- in, fly- out ac­tiv­i­ties where spec­i­mens and/ or data are gath­ered, ob­ser­va­tions made, mea­sure­ments taken, and then it’s back to a city- based lab­o­ra­tory or of­fice, to city- based col­leagues, classes and stu­dents, to city- based lives un­til the next foray.

There the talk is about a crit­i­cal mass of re­searchers, bet­ter fi­nanc­ing, greater ag­gre­gate lev­els of re­search fund­ing, hub and spokes mod­els and the con­cen­tra­tion of in­dus­try in metropoli­tan ar­eas.

But the in­ten­sity, the ev­ery­day con­nect­ed­ness and im­pact — the power of place — is miss­ing from their en­deav­ours.

It can­not be there be­cause the in­ter­est and sup­port from a lo­cal com­mu­nity is ab­sent, the per­sonal na­ture of the prob­lem and po­ten­tial so­lu­tions and the multi- di­men­sional in­sti­tu­tional com­mit­ment to the com­mu­nity are im­pos­si­ble when re­searchers re­move them­selves from the com­mu­nity.

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