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University researchers were there in the bushfire crisis, says Group of Eight chief

Vicki Thomson – The Australian – 29/01/2020 – read at The Australian

It has been a national disaster like no summer before it. Its wake of destruction — mental, physical and economic, and not only for the short term — remains too difficult to comprehend.

It’s not a time when the nation automatically looks to universities as being of use or probably even reachable.

But, like every part of Australian society, we are here, ready to pitch in and help. We have been on the ground doing our best to assist with disaster response since the early days of the fires and we have no intention of leaving.

I am not writing this to market ourselves but to offer our community more hope, and understanding, that the nation’s intellectual capacity is a massive resource for you.

As federal Industry, Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews said recently (and I paraphrase), it is science that will lead us out of these dark days.

She wasn’t speaking of that well-worn caricature of a white-bearded scientist ensconced in an ivory tower but in the knowledge that some of the best minds in the world are working to address the challenges of our health, air and water quality, fire management, agriculture and horticulture, land clearance, climate, engineering, flora and fauna, town planning, architecture and rebuilding local economies.

These scientists in all of the areas mentioned above, like their trauma specialist and social work colleagues, have flocked from their off-duty summer to do something: to be here, lend a hand, work with emergency management, do anything we can, be it for months or (more likely) years.

The University of NSW has its water, soil and air quality experts involved in the rapid deployment of safe water.

The University of Melbourne is working with mental health specialists, has its experts providing immediate advice to government on building fire safety, and its veterinary specialists assisting with the vast animal welfare catastrophe.

The University of Adelaide, which is an international leader on the impact of fires on the wine sector, has donated many hundreds of volunteer hours, with its teams out with grape growers, checking damage severity, vine health, smoke taint and methods for rebuilding.

The Australian National University has an already highly regarded community trauma toolkit readily available. We are helping affected students and our volunteer first responders, offering beds in student accommodation and agistment for affected stock on our veterinary campuses.

And respiratory specialists from Group of Eight universities are helping organisers make decisions regarding major sporting venues and events in the face of persistent smoke haze

Our experts and researchers are assisting in the rebuilding of communities and embracing shattered families. We have assured government it has the use of our relevant academic expertise for as long as it is needed, and we know that could be for years to come.

We understand absolutely, as the group of universities that undertakes two-thirds of university research in Australia, that in the midst of this climate emergency we must continue to pursue the research that helps us understand how we got here and that gives us the seeds of hope that help us adapt to the future.

In the immediate context we have much practical support to deliver to the community. We want to do all we can to stop another fire season such as this. That is the Australian way and it’s also the university way.

As chief executive of the Go8, which represents Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, I have always found it concerning that universities seem to struggle to break through our own version of a glass ceiling. We are too seldom viewed as a resource for the wider community. Yet that is why we exist: to educate and to research to pursue a better world for all Australians, even those who don’t go to university.

The 50,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of students within the walls of our research-rich universities are members of their communities: we are volunteer firefighters and State Emergency Service workers, as well as climate scientists, trauma psychologists and veterinarians.

Australians are in this together, including our universities.