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Asia’s research leaders ask how universities can use data to drive sustainability

The 4th Annual Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference brought together nearly 200 research executives

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Conference speakers greet each other, left to right: Prof. Bundhit Eua-Arporn, PhD; President of Chulalongkorn University; Kiat Ruxrungtham, the university’s VP for Research and Innovation; and Supachai Panitchpakdi, former Secretary General of UNCTAD and Director General of WTO – Thailand.

By fusing technologies and tapping into the power of data, the fourth industrial revolution promises to change the way we do research and understand impact. Big data provides more opportunities than were imaginable just a decade ago, across all fields of research.

This is happening in parallel with major global challenges to sustainable development, from climate change and water scarcity to poverty and inequality. Can one help the other?

Universities play a key role in connecting the power of data with sustainable development. Data will be increasingly important as foundation for setting goals and tracking the progress of research, particularly to ensure scientific knowledge and technological advancement drive sustainable development.

Universities in this role have many opportunities for new streams of research and approaches to education, but they also face many challenges; only by sharing knowledge and experience can research executives and academic leaders inspire institutions to make the most out of the fourth industrial revolution and truly impact sustainable development.

Partnering with Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Elsevier held the 4th Annual Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference, “University and the Power of Data – Science for a Sustainable Society,” on July 5 and 6. The conference gathered close to 200 research leaders from the Asia Pacific region to discuss topics such as how they are collaborating with industry, using big data technology to monitor energy consumption on campus and ensuring future science and business leaders are motivated and equipped to solve sustainability problems.

With Elsevier’s focus on data and analytics and our keen interest in sustainability science, the event provided an opportunity to further the conversation in these increasingly interconnected realms while learning more about the innovative initiatives of our Asian colleagues, some of whom we partner with.

In his opening address, Prof. Bundhit Eua‐Arporn, President of Chulalongkorn University, described the conference as “an excellent opportunity to exchange information and learn from experts from all over the world in research management.” Over the two days, delegates explored the ways research institutions are using data to drive sustainable development, including through education.

Educating tomorrow’s sustainable development leaders

Universities help guide people into their careers, equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to start out. In this role, academic institutions have the power – and responsibility – to teach future leaders about sustainability so they don’t go into industry thinking of our oceans as an economic externality that can be used as a dumping ground for waste, for example.

There is a movement to strengthen this role in the region. ProSPER.Net – the Promotion of Sustainability in Postgraduate Education and Research Network – is a group of 40 universities in Asia that are integrating sustainable development into their postgraduate courses and curricula. They held their annual management meeting during the conference and led a session in which panelists discussed how universities can contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through education.

One approach is by making sustainability central to the campus itself. Prof. Alexander Zehnder, Scientific Director of the Alberta Water Research Institute in Canada and Visiting Professor, Trustee and Director of the Sustainable Earth Office at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, talked about NTU’s EcoCampus initiative – “a meeting place for sustainability education, research, development and implementation.” Part of NTU’s wider sustainability strategy, EcoCampus aims to reduce energy use, water and waste by 35 percent by 2020.

By showing students the importance of sustainability, including through a compulsory online course for all first year students, NTU aims to prepare future leaders to deal with the sustainability challenges they will face. In explaining the approach, Dr. Zehnder stated:

Universities educate the future leaders, therefore sustainability must be a central element of education.

Yet we must also consider the format education takes, not just the content of what is being taught. South Korea is the most broadband-connected country in the world. Prof. Jaiyong Lee, Provost of Yonsei University in South Korea, talked about digital disruption:

In Korea, people spend one-fifth to one-quarter of their days on smartphones. The fourth industrial revolution brings many new technologies to our everyday life. Why don’t we change our education and research styles? The digital future is coming at full speed. Digital technologies are disrupting the traditional models of creating, delivering, and consuming knowledge in the areas of research, education and campus life.

Leveraging data

An analysis of Chulalongkorn University’s research performance is introduced by Saurabh Sharma, MSc, MBA, Elsevier’s VP of Research Solutions, Asia Pacific region.

Digital technology is not only a way to deliver education that supports sustainable development, but also a way to embed developments into campus life and monitor the results, said Youngsuk “YS” Chi, Chairman of Elsevier and Director of Corporate Affairs and Asia Strategy for Elsevier’s parent company, RELX Group:

Universities have the long-term vision that is necessary to invest to support research that may only pay off many years in the future. Perhaps where universities are best positioned to lead is to shape leaders of the next generations. … New technological advances allow us to collect real-time data about how well our students are doing in each class; we can then tailor the teaching to their needs. It is a culture of sustainability that eventually upholds success.

In this sense, research and education are closely connected, not just by being under the same roof but because research provides the content for education and the result of education – qualified scientists – feeds into the future of research.

Publishing is one way knowledge can be transferred within this connection. Elsevier publishes more than 20 percent of the sustainability science produced globally, providing the best venues for publishing and responding quickly to emerging fields.

To best build on this research and apply the knowledge and skill of those being educated, a strong strategy is needed for research that addresses the most important sustainable development issues in the future. Research managers can develop this kind of strategy by analyzing publication outputs.

Dr. Alison Lloyd, Director of Institutional Research and Planning at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, shares insights on their use of SciVal for data analytics.

Talking about the challenges and opportunities for research-intensive universities in a data laden world, Dr. Alison Lloyd, Director of Institutional Research and Planning at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, highlighted how the university uses benchmarking to inform its strategy through the Balanced Scorecard. She explained how the team uses Elsevier’s SciVal, which uses advanced data analytics to allow users to visualize research performance, benchmark relative to peers, develop collaborative partnerships and analyze research trends:

We look at SciVal to understand collaborations and also evaluate specific partnerships. It was fundamental for us to move away from producing more and more papers to produce quality papers.

Collaborating to boost impact

At the institutional level, data can help shape education and inform research strategy to support sustainable development. But with collaboration the impact can be much bigger, as Prof. Eua‐Arporn said:

We must focus on building successful collaborations between universities, local communities, government and industry for our research to have a real impact.

The Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) aims to support this approach by bringing together 45 leading research universities, giving them the combined research power of a medium-sized nation. APRU Secretary General Dr. Christopher Tremewan believes that providing data and case studies on collective competencies opens pathways for cooperation with multilateral agencies, governments and communities, ultimately leading to more impactful research:

Collaboration among members enhances visibility and citations compared to national collaboration. APRU universities boost research quality through international collaboration.

Dr. Huey‐Jen Jenny Su, President of National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Taiwan, talks about how her university works with the government and corporations to provide data and analytics to take on key challenges.

In Taiwan, National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) has established “triple helix” partnerships with governments and leading companies to tackle challenges and foster innovative future leaders. NCKU President Dr. Huey‐Jen Jenny Su talked about establishing the role of higher education as a primary engine for social development, describing the university’s desire to change the relationship with the city in this context.

This has already had tangible results. During the country’s 2015 epidemic of Dengue fever, the worst in a century, NCKU used big data to support decision makers, mapping cases geographically to show intensity and help the authorities prioritize the allocation of medical and environmental resources. NCKU researchers also identified a correlation between Dengue fever risk and temperature, traveling south to north.

Data holds a lot of power as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, enabling universities to contribute to sustainable development through education and research. But it may be collaboration – across industries and national boundaries – that will unlock the power and full potential.

An infographic created for this conference reveals the most prolific research countries in Asia. Using Scopus data from 2012-16, Elsevier’s Research Intelligence team used SciVal to analyze the growth of Asia, focusing on Thailand’s scholarly output. <a target="_blank" href="https://www.elsevier.com/research-intelligence/campaigns/thailand-research-excellence-and-beyond">Learn more here</a>.

The conference

The 4th Annual Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference – University and the Power of Data: Science for a Sustainable Society – was held in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 5 and 6, 2017. Co-hosted by Elsevier and Chulalongkorn University, it brought together more than 200 invited guests – the region’s leading vice presidents of research, research managers and research administrators – to share knowledge and explore the role of universities in driving sustainable development through data. The next conference will be held in June 2018 at Yonsei University in South Korea.


Also contributing to this report: Ludivine Allagnat, Senior Academic Relations Manager, and Alisher Perez-Makhmoudova, Intern, both from Elsevier’s Tokyo office; and Sarah Huggett, Analytical Services Product Manager, based in Singapore.

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