The following news story appeared on the front page of the University of Bergen's news website on 3 April 2014. Written by Sverre Ole Drønen.
WUN is a global research network that focuses on the University of Bergen’s priorities of international health and climate research. What’s not to like?
In 2014, it is exactly ten years since the University of Bergen (UiB) joined the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), becoming the first university from the Nordic countries to join this organisation of research-driven universities. “When UiB joined WUN ten years ago, most of the partners were British or American,” says John P. Hearn, WUN’s executive director and also a professor of physiology at the University of Sydney.
Professor John Hearn, Chief Executive of WUN, with Professor Dag Rune Olsen, Rector of the University of Bergen
Bridging the culture gap
He believes that UiB’s entry into the network was of great value. “First and foremost, UiB brings to the table a specific set of research skills. But UiB also brings a different way of thinking into WUN, beyond what our British and American members do,” he says. Since taking over as executive director of WUN, Hearn has set ambitious goals for the organisation, believing that in a globalised world, there is a desperate need for quality research.
“We work to attract international agencies and foundations to fund the WUN programmes,” he says. “Not only to fund our research projects, but also for us to influence policy decisions.”
WUN’s Global Challenges
He is referring to four Global Challenges that WUN has identified. This is part of the new direction WUN has taken under Hearn’s stewardship. According to Hearn, until about five years ago WUN was involved in quite a number of research areas. The lack of clear direction did, however, limit the effectiveness of the network. Hence the focus is now firmly on the four focus areas, which correspond with the priorities of the member universities. “Back then, we stepped back, asking ourselves some questions,” Hearn explains. “What does the world need? Where is the gap in research? Where can we be most effective to help the world meet its challenges?” The answer was WUN’s four Global Challenges.
An excellent fit
From a UiB perspective, WUN’s new direction is a perfect match. With two of WUN’s prioritised areas also being among UiB’s focus areas: international health and climate change.
“WUN’s focus on research and global challenges is an excellent fit for UiB,” says Rector Dag Rune Olsen.
He has just attended his first annual WUN conference and is now a member of the WUN Partnership Board.
“I believe that WUN can develop to become an even more useful network for UiB in the future,” says Olsen. “In particular I see an overlap when it comes to our global health and climate change research. But there is also a considerable overlap with the priorities we are laying out in UiB’s new strategy.”
Olsen points to a first draft he has received from a group led by Professor Eystein Jansen, the former director of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, which suggests that climate research become one of UiB's main focus areas. Overall, Olsen sees many emerging UiB themes as corresponding with WUN’s priorities.
“Whereas in the past one-to-one collaborations with other universities may have been sufficient, working together in a network organisation such as WUN is essential to address the major global challenges that we face,” says Olsen. “Dealing with global issues means that bigger resources and a wider range of knowledge and experience is necessary.”
Sowing the seeds of future research
The idea behind WUN is to promote new research, and one way of doing this is by providing seed funding to research collaboration between WUN partner institutions.
“We have a focus on research networks of peer universities. We want to accelerate international collaborations by creating opportunities, both for established and early researchers,” says Hearn.
“Once a year, researchers from member universities compete for funds. We look for catalytic projects in our 4 focus areas, with at least 5 WUN partners from at least 2 or 3 regions. The researchers need to show how they will go for bigger and longer-term funding to receive seed-funding for one year.”
Both Olsen and Hearn observe that the seed-funding model chosen by WUN is already yielding results, with some early recipients moving closer to multi-million funding of their projects.
Promoting WUN at UiB
Now Olsen wants to promote WUN more actively to the research communities at UiB.
“We need to make the potential of the WUN network more visible with our researchers. There are many who would benefit from this type of global seed-funding,” Olsen believes, also eyeing the potential for involving external partners to compliment and enhance the knowledge found in the WUN community.
“With WUN looking to strengthen its research-management side, there is every reason to believe that the network will be successful in securing substantial research funding globally in the years to come,” says Olsen.
A global research force
Hearn believes a research-driven organisation such as WUN is perfectly situated to punch above its weight, by combining the dynamics and characteristics of its various members with its global reach. He does, however, want the network to grow even more out of its Anglo-American roots to truly become a global research force.
“This year’s WUN conference has shown that we are on our way fast to becoming the international research network intended when the network was founded,” he says whilst indicating a desire to welcome new members from continental Europe, Asia and Latin America.
At the 2014 WUN conference, several potential new members were suggested by the various groups and networks working in parallel sessions throughout the conference.
Slowly growing the network
WUN is, however, not a network for every university. Hearn points out that membership is quite expensive and that WUN demands a lot of its member universities.
“Being an organic network of universities, we want to grow slowly and only accept universities that fit certain criteria and can add to our focus areas,” says Hearn.
Rector Olsen shares Hearn’s desire for WUN to grow in an organic manner. “Strengthening the ties with China is important for the network as a whole,” says Olsen, mentioning Professor Stein Kuhnle of the Department of Comparative Politics as UiB’s ‘special envoy’ to China, given his extensive research on Chinese and Nordic welfare policies.
WUN and UiB for the future
Nine UiB staff attended the 2014 WUN conference in Cape Town. Looking forward to the 2015 WUN conference, taking place in Hong Kong in April, Olsen is already suggesting that UiB bring a larger delegation. “We should bring more of our researchers to engage with emerging WUN subjects, such as China’s role in the world or digital culture,” says Olsen, adding that he has already been in touch with Professor Jill Walker Rettberg of the Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies about the latter subject.
Whatever happens, Rector Olsen is in no doubt that there will an even stronger UiB presence at next year’s WUN conference.