a global response to global challenges
As part of its strategy to internationalise its research, the University of Cape Town has been a member of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) – a partnership of 17 research-intensive universities – since 2009.
In 2014, the WUN came closer to home than usual because UCT hosted the annual conference and general meeting in March – the first WUN conference to take place in Africa – and UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, took over as WUN chair.
The WUN is committed to addressing the world’s most urgent challenges collaboratively. As a comprehensive global research organisation, the WUN shares many of the same objectives as UCT. Since 2009, the WUN has focused on four thematic challenges: responding to climate change; understanding cultures; global higher education and research; and public health and non-communicable diseases.
Through the Research Development Fund (RDF), the WUN reinvests a significant proportion of member subscription fees into seeding sustainable, international research collaboration. For example, Dr Ellen Hurst, who works in language development at UCT, is involved in an RDF-funded project that addresses how language skills facilitate success for skilled migrants in their professional host communities.
When Dr Price took over as chair of the WUN, he observed that the network plays a crucial role in the development of leadership, because university leaders are able to “draw on the wisdom of [their] peers”. WUN members also ensured that their students were prepared for an increasingly globalised world, he argued, by facilitating student mobility and generating large research grants that could sustain cross-continental, cross-institutional research projects.
The WUN mobility grants have contributed towards the formation of highly fruitful collaborations. For example, Dr Mercy Brown-Luthango of UCT’s African Centre for Cities was supported to visit the University of Sheffield to plan a programme of work on the relationship between violence and the upgrading of informal settlements.
Mobility grants can also contribute to career development. For instance, Dr Lester Davids, a molecular cell biologist in the Department of Human Biology, became a Fulbright Fellow in 2014. He attributes this achievement directly to his work with Professor Nina Jablonski at Pennsylvania State University, a collaboration that was enabled by the WUN mobility grant he received in 2011.
WUN collaborations can give rise to powerful and focused new networks. In-FLAME – the International Inflammation Network – is one such initiative that includes Associate Professor Michael Levin from the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health. Noncommunicable diseases pose the greatest current threat to global health, and inflammation is a common element among almost all of them. In-FLAME aims to understand the risk factors and devise strategies to prevent them. Close collaboration can give rise to more effective research: in the long term, in-FLAME plans to streamline research protocols so that all researchers collect the same information, at the same time, using the same methods. This will produce large, standardised data sets that are much more powerful than a number of differentiated collections of data.