Technological change does not exist in a vacuum; it frequently raises social, political and ethical dilemmas. They’re problems the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) disciplines are designed to interrogate. Like STEM disciplines, HASS asks the big questions, but also considers the social, economic and political contexts involved in addressing them – that is, the human impact of scientific progress. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Professor Mary Spongberg reveals why our strength in practice-oriented HASS disciplines offers us a definite and distinctive edge in innovation.
The merging of the arts and sciences is not a new concept. It has long been recognised that an understanding of humanity, of how we think and act, is a necessary accompaniment to technological innovation. Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in the US, have embedded this approach in their teaching and learning. In fact, MIT ensures all their undergraduates complete HASS studies.
It’s part of the new paradigm of convergent research; an approach to problem solving that draws on the knowledge and methodologies of a diversity of disciplines – physics, chemistry, biology, life sciences, engineering, humanities, design and more – to stimulate collective innovation. While much convergent research is currently STEM-led and heavily focused on the biological and life sciences, the approach has boundless capacity to yield critical advances across society’s most complex challenges. These include climate change and energy, food and water shortages, and aim to transform lives and life on our planet.
UTS is poised to become a pre-eminent centre of convergent research in the Asia-Pacific region. We have invested heavily in researchers and infrastructure in engineering, IT and the life sciences. We have committed to a pan-university health strategy and have long led the higher education sector in transdisciplinary learning and teaching.
Critically, our excellence in practice-based HASS and design disciplines, combined with our cutting-edge science and engineering faculties, offers UTS an unparalleled opportunity to lead a more distinctive style of converged research.
This will give us a significant advantage over more established technology universities who, like the sandstone universities, tend towards more traditional humanities faculties. The depth and breadth of transdisciplinary research at UTS also opens up potential for growth in research funding as policy models increasingly shift to support convergence.
UTS has already moved beyond the STEM/HASS divide, if in fact that exists. A citizen science project engaging everyday people to take a journey with microscopic plankton, and visually engage with ocean data to contribute to a global analysis of how they are affected by changing environmental conditions, provides an exciting example.
The UTS-led transdisciplinary project team comprises outstanding researchers from across UTS – Professor Martina Doblin based in the Faculty of Science, and Professor Kate Sweetapple and Dr Jacqueline Lorber-Kasunic, both visual communication and visualisation experts from the School of Design.
The sum of these parts offers so much more than valuable scientific insight into the effects of climate change; it also provides a window into the effect of the novel use of visualisation tools and the motivations and impacts of citizen involvement in scientific discovery.
“The depth and breadth of transdisciplinary research at UTS also opens up potential for growth in research funding as policy models increasingly shift to support convergence.”
Much of this convergence of STEM and HASS research is happening serendipitously at UTS. It’s critical to now develop the community and infrastructure to ensure that this happens much more by design.
I recently co-led a university-wide consultation process around our HASS research with Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Charles Rice. What we overwhelmingly learned was that our researchers do not identify a wide gulf between the two areas. In fact, many were already working productively across HASS, science, business and design. We also discovered a great appetite for collaboration, with consultations generating productive discussions around the convergence of research in health, law, medical technology, science, data visualisation and communications.
The comprehensive HASS strategy we developed has led to a number of critical outcomes. They include an initial decision to create a number of thematic labs as convening structures and development vehicles for both HASS research and HASS/STEM collaborations. We are currently piloting a HistoryLab at UTS, bringing together researchers from the faculties of Arts and Social Sciences, Law, Design, Architecture and Building, and Engineering and Information Technology ahead of a planned mid-2018 launch.
HistoryLab will be a space for historians at UTS to build collaborations with cultural institutions, and to experiment with ways of using digital technology to analyse and tell stories about the past in ways that achieve maximum impact. HistoryLab projects utilise digital technologies both as a method of analysis and as an engagement platform.
We’re also developing a Research Translation Initiative that will connect creative practice with areas of research that could benefit from its approaches to engagement, dissemination and impact.
Twenty-first century universities must produce graduates who combine deep disciplinary knowledge and digital literacy with the capacity to move fluidly across other disciplines. UTS’s strategy heralds a deliberate and structured approach to our convergent research, and to the deep integration of this into our teaching and learning.
This culture, combined with our commitment to social justice and diversity, will empower UTS to lead the resolution of society’s most pressing questions now and into the future.