Academic Benjamin Tang in the lab working on COVID-19

How universities will contribute to the major events of 2021

2 February 2021
The role of universities in the year ahead
University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison discusses how universities will contribute to the major themes of 2021 - from COVID to climate.

If 2020 proved anything, it’s that you need to have deep wells of social, economic, political and cultural resilience to deal with the extraordinary times we are living in.

In Australia, the year began with devastating bushfires, intensified by the effects of climate change on our fragile continent (with flooding followed not long after). Then came the emergence of COVID-19 and the impact of a full-blown pandemic – border shutdowns, no travel (including for our own international students) and lockdowns – resulting in the government having to introduce some of the largest economic and social aid programs since the Great Depression. We also saw the deepening of geo-security competition between China and the U.S. – with complicated consequences for Australia – as well as profound political shifts in the Indo-Pacific as a result. And we witnessed a deeply divisive U.S. election, preceded by mass protests over racial injustice and inequality, culminating in an astonishing attack on the U.S. Capitol building by disenchanted supporters of President Trump.

But these shocks also generated extraordinary responses. And universities played a vital role in so many of them. In relation to COVID, for example, our colleague, Professor Eddie Holmes, was part of the team that was the first to map the SARS-CoV-2 genome – laying the groundwork for the development of vaccines (work that was, in turn, built upon years of ground-breaking basic science research here in Australia and globally). In early 2020, our researchers came together to help Australians understand the scale of the devastation of the bushfires – with homes and lives lost and almost 3 billion animals impacted – as well as how we can build a more climate resilient future.  And our social and political scientists, including in our United States Studies Centre, helped explain what was at stake in the U.S. election – and especially what the results would mean for Australia and our region. 

So, what will 2021 bring? And what will it mean for universities?

Only a fool would try to predict what will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but I think we can anticipate a few important developments in which universities will have a critical role to play – including the University of Sydney.


First of all, 2021 will continue to be deeply affected by COVID-19 and everything that has come in its wake. Vaccines are being rolled out and governments and public health experts are continuing to grapple with the complexity of managing a highly contagious disease in highly mobile populations. What will we learn about the impact of these vaccines? How will citizens cope with seemingly endless lockdowns and restrictions on movement? Our researchers are at the forefront of many of these questions – including already thinking about how to prevent the next pandemic, developing new tools for clinicians to detect COVID-19 and helping the World Health Organization uncover the origins of the outbreak.

Climate action

2021 will also be the year – finally – of climate action. A new U.S. President has put it at the centre of his domestic and global agenda and technology is rapidly advancing to help deliver new solutions for a more sustainable economy – including revolutionary battery technology, end-of-life plastic recycling, and new approaches to a developing a genuinely circular economy, all being pursued here at the University of Sydney. Political activism around climate will also likely intensify, with the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow in November likely to be focused on even more ambitious emission reduction targets than those agreed in Paris in 2015. What will Australia do? Our Sydney Environment Institute has led important research on climate justice, working with civil society organisations, local governments and others to help build community resilience around not only more sustainable ways of living, but more equitable and just approaches to achieving sustainability.

Partnering for impact

Finally, 2021 will see the continuation of what I think of as the ‘great opening up’ of universities – the deepening engagement with governments, industry partners, NGOs and citizens. This is, in part, driven by the challenges we face, as well as the desire, on the part of the communities we serve, to harness our research and teaching for the public good. For example, at Sydney, our plastic recycling technology is being rolled out to industrial and government customers in more than 80 countries, and we’re working with Microsoft to build a quantum computer that could transform the future of computing, the economy and the way we live. 

Developing COVID-19 vaccines, for example, required global and cross-sectoral support. This will need to continue as the virus mutates and evolves. Climate action will require researchers, industry and governments – and even activists – to work together with purpose for the survival of the planet. The rise and rise of Asia, and the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific as a site for geopolitical competition, will require new thinking about international security and order, and even more engagement between policy makers, regional experts, social scientists and NGOs. And the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – something the University of Sydney is deeply committed to – will only happen if universities, governments, industry and civil society collaborate in new and creative ways.

The boundaries of universities are becoming more porous, our work more deeply multi- and trans-disciplinary. 2021 will be a year in which, whatever else happens, our work will make a difference for Australia and the world.  


About the author

Duncan Ivison is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and a Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Sydney.

Follow him on Twitter

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