Marnie Hughes-Warrington: Looking back to move forward

By Dan Lander

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington

> The past, the future, and our pandemic present
> An engaging, interdisciplinary research agenda
> Razing silos and embracing the world
> The history of a better future

With the start of her tenure marked by incredible international events, it’s probably just as well UniSA’s new Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Enterprise, Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, is an expert at keeping things in perspective.

Over the coming months, a team of UniSA’s senior academics will develop a new research strategy to supersede the current Research and Innovation Strategic Plan 2016-2020. Whatever shape that document eventually takes, the story of its creation will undoubtedly stick in many people’s memories.

UniSA’s new research plan will be the first major contribution from Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Enterprise, Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, who replaced Professor Tanya Monro in January, following a 12-month period during which Professor Simon Beecham ably guided the University’s research as acting Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Innovation.

Formulation of the 2021-2025 plan has commenced and will continue, for some time at least, under strict social distancing protocols and the unprecedented disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is currently, necessarily, a task to be tackled by telephone, Zoom, email and … baking.

The Great UniSA Bake Off posts

“Well, I wanted to create a sense of connection among the team despite social distancing, so I organised a Zoom baking contest to coincide with the start of work on the first draft of the plan,” Prof Hughes-Warrington says. “We all find ourselves in this incredible circumstance, so three days into the new University structure, I thought, ‘Why not ask the Deans how their baking is going?’.”

It’s a light touch perfect for testing times and reveals plenty about Prof Hughes-Warrington’s personality. A world-renowned philosopher of history, Prof Hughes-Warrington brings to her new role a sense of perspective that recognises opportunity in adversity. Despite all the current challenges, over an hour-long interview with UniSA News, her well-considered enthusiasm and grounded optimism are obvious – as is the admiration she has for the attitude of her new colleagues.

“The fact that the University has navigated through incredible change and become a predominantly online educator in the space of three weeks is inspirational,” Prof Hughes-Warrington says. “How the staff have managed is incredible, but it also reminds us about our ingenuity as researchers.

“The fact that we could do that shows that we're an incredibly creative and interesting group, and that gives me huge confidence around our next research plan – the confidence to say I expect we could do similarly bold things in research.”

In the following conversation, Prof Hughes-Warrington outlines some of the principles and philosophy that will guide that process.

The past, the future, and our pandemic present

You have joined UniSA at a challenging and quite remarkable time – not only has there been the COVID-19 crisis, but the academic transformation was also underway when you arrived. How have you handled the situation?

Well, I would never ask for a first hundred days like the one I have had, but I think you have to make the best of the situation. You know, there is no upside to the pandemic, but the truth is that I've been doing daily Zooms with Deans of Research for the last three-and-a-half weeks, and it's been an amazing experience, because they’re a really incredible group.

Being able to touch base with them every day has been incredibly rewarding, and to an extent, because of the circumstance, I've got to know the group in a way I might not have otherwise.

I am very grateful that I've got this team to work with – I would say you don't choose the times you live in, but you do choose how to respond to them and you can choose who to respond to those times with, and I feel really quite lucky to be at UniSA with the group that I'm with.

UniSA's Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Enterprise Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington delivers an inspiring message to our entire research community in the midst of the COVID-19 situation.

You have spent much of your life researching and writing about the importance of history, particularly as a means for understanding the present. What does history tell us about a situation like the current pandemic?

The world has gone through some really major disruptions at different times due to different things, and it's never turned out the same way. It's never remained what it was, and these sorts of events are major transformations. If you think about the current situation on the big scale, it reminds people of how globally entangled we are. And when you take that entanglement away, it stops people in their tracks and makes them think.

But then when you are overseeing research like I am, you see people very quickly respond to that new world and think of new ways to do things. People have obviously laboured under different constraints before, and with these new constraints introduced, many people have been quite creative. It's a terrible situation globally, but it is also fuelling creativity, and so you see incredibly interesting things begin to emerge. The world will be shaped by both the terrible nature of what's happened, but also by the creativity that you can see at play.

If this crisis changes the world, does that then change the way you need to approach your new role as Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Enterprise?

I'm seeing people think about their world quite differently right now, and my job and that of other leaders, is to help them with the weight of that. What you notice is that simple everyday decisions, the weight of those things has become heavier for people. People are thinking more deeply through ethical issues that they might encounter day to day, and I'm not saying they normally do those in an unthinking way, but right now they are more inclined to take care and step more gently because they feel the weight of the world. And, you know, my job, anybody’s job as a leader, is to help them with that weight a little bit, not to take it off them, but to say, ‘Okay, you don't have to be ultra-productive right now, you don't have to be Isaac Newton and produce a book during this time. You could slow down.

'But at the same time, if you wanted to speed up on something, then that's okay too, because you might want to take your mind off some of these things or you might be working on a COVID related project and speed is of the essence.’

It’s about recognising and accommodating these new ways of looking at the world.

An engaging, interdisciplinary research agenda

Beyond the specific pandemic situation, what are your intentions and ambitions for UniSA’s research direction and engagement?

The most important thing I know is that UniSA has the strongest industry and community ties of any university in Australia. And so that's the starting point, to acknowledge that incredible strength. And even before COVID, my thinking was that we could enhance the ways in which we help shape the strengths, the growth and the health of both community and business.

So, as I'm out there in partnership with community and industry, I am thinking about the things that will enable them to grow, but I also have to think about the things we do as an institution for our researchers to help them to grow. How do I help them scale up their efforts at the same time? By being mindful of both sides, that's helping the community, including ourselves, to grow stronger and flourish.

There's lots of different ways in which we do that. It's not for one discipline to solve that challenge – it’s something that travels the disciplinary spectrum of the University. So, for example, a lot of institutions right now need to come to grips with personalisation – knowing who their customers are and supporting them. And that’s not just business, but community – personalisation is the major trend in health, as it is in business, as it is in law and as it is in education. And responding to a challenge like personalisation requires creativity, and I think creativity is something that people are interested in across the spectrum. So really, what I'm asking people at UniSA, and our alumni, and the broader community, to think about is what things are going to help the health and the growth of business and community across the board? And there's never been a better time to ask that question.

From that it seems you believe there are common challenges that stretch right across the University, the community and industry, and perhaps the similarities matter more than the differences?

Correct. I can see some themes that run from end to end across the University that are not about a discipline and they’re not necessarily about sectors. They're about the things that all the existing parts of South Australian society are grappling with right now, and I think we have the capability to partner with those communities to assist them.

And it doesn't mean that those things are not specific to various sectors in particular ways – it doesn't mean a lawyer thinks about personalisation in exactly the same way as a computer scientist. But we have to acknowledge we have capability that runs from end to end across our institution and that we have common challenges in a variety of spaces, both within our own community and in the wider community.

That concept on interdisciplinary, cross disciplinary understanding is an important part of UniSA’s current academic transformation. Was that something that attracted you to UniSA?

Very definitely. I'm a person that works across multiple disciplines, I've never conveniently put myself in one place and I've really benefited from that. So, I've always been attracted to that.

The other thing that really attracts me immediately is that UniSA has a flexibility, in that you see blue sky research, but also translation and sometimes you see it in one person, but more commonly you see it across teams. And, so, UniSA researchers are not only multi- or interdisciplinary, they're also running that full translation spectrum, and that was deeply attractive to me. And I thought that was a really fantastic strength of the institution because the opportunity to think quite creatively about new ideas, but then to test them in partnership with people in the real world is the greatest test of a good idea, isn't it?

The other thing that attracted me to UniSA was just the diversity here. There's a lot of women leaders in the uni, and that's very attractive. But, also the cultural diversity you find here was deeply attractive to me. I believe to think through really difficult challenges with community and with business, having different voices to build on is the best way to break through those problems. And that means cultural diversity from around the world, and also commitment to Aboriginal Australians as shapers of knowledge, not just the recipient of solutions.

UniSA doesn’t broadcast solutions, and I love that. It works with people to find solutions. I've seen so many times already academics going to business and community and saying: ‘What is really troubling you? What can we help you with?’ And then thinking really carefully about the capability in the institution, about whether they can assist, how we can collaborate with people within and beyond the University to get the best outcome.

Razing silos and embracing the world

How do you see UniSA’s academic transformation assisting the research process?

The research staff here are really well connected to one another, and they've all said to me across the board, silos are the things that stop research. We can't always remove them, but we can reduce their height as much as possible.

So, I think the transformation enables people to say, ‘I have a willingness to reduce the height of the silo to as low as possible – or indeed to raze it to the ground’. And that's the spirit being harnessed as we formulate the research plan, which we are in the process of at the moment. If you think about those silos, they exist because people put them there, so people can take them away. I've always said you could serve them, or you could remove them. And the spirit here right now driving this transformation is very much one of removal. So, I think I've arrived at the right time.

I think the leadership capability in the group shepherding this transformation, the generosity and the compassion and care for one another, is quite extraordinary. And the thing I love about it is that they can come from a particular disciplinary space, but they're curious and interested in how research works in other spaces. And so, it is quite fantastic to sit with that group and have them explain that work and feel like their own education as researchers is accelerating because they're learning how things can be done differently across the institution.

Do you intend to encourage a greater degree of international research collaboration at UniSA? And if so, how?

Yes, absolutely. That's part of the ‘young brand’ bit, getting yourself out there, not to broadcast to the world, but to partner with the world. And interestingly, even though people can't travel at the moment, I set up a little innovation grant scheme to encourage researchers to connect even during these times and the applications are coming in quickly – it's fantastic. So, people sit still for a moment and go, ‘Oh, gosh, I can't do what I was doing before’. But, then as researchers, they bounce back pretty quickly. They go, ‘Oh, I could do it this way or I can think about doing it this way.’

So, people are still connecting internationally, they're just using different approaches and platforms. And, interestingly, the constraints we're currently facing are getting a broader group of people to think about how we can stay connected to one another and that is opening up some opportunities for researchers who traditionally may not have been able to participate in wider collaboration, which is terrific. So, the way we partner internationally will not always be about getting on a plane and seeing people face to face. Although it's lovely to do that, I also think that as researchers, it sits with us to think about how those relationships can be built and nurtured without always travelling physically.

And what do you see as the benefits of such international collaboration?

There are two kinds of gain. The first is allowing researchers who might be isolated in their work to connect with the world's best. And that travels both ways, because we have outstanding researchers, world-class researchers, so I am committed to enabling them to connect with peers, to talk through their work, open up new ideas and avenues with them.

The second thing is it's a benefit to South Australia as well. When we do return to travelling, the notion of bringing people in, allowing them to see what an incredible state this is, allowing them to engage with us in partnership with community and business and for the world to learn more about this space and perhaps to be inspired by it.

My view is, we never do these things just for ourselves – we have to remember that we are part of that wider community in South Australia, and this is an incredible place. So why wouldn't we want people to see it and to feel part of its story as well?

The history of a better future

In taking on a challenging new role with UniSA, will there still be room for your own research?

Well, I am tantalisingly close to finishing my next book, which is on the relationship between scales in history and ethics. For example, in writing a history of September 11, would you write it about one person or write it around all the people that died? What decisions do you make in scale, and when do you switch, because historians switch scales quite often and do it with a lot of virtuosity, they just aren’t always as aware of it as they could be. For a while now, I've been quite interested in how the scale of the work that historians do is related to how they think the world ought to be.

Following that, my next project will look at what happens now computers are beginning to write history, and how our code of ethics actually acknowledges that and adapts for those parts of history that are in doubt. I'm just absolutely intrigued by artificial agents making history.

Can you give an example of that process?

The simplest example is Twitter, a bot that puts out, you know, ‘This day in history’. It cultivates a timeline, and timelines are never neutral. They're always content selected, and so they’re sending out a message about what matters to people. Another example, if you've got Netflix or Stan or even Foxtel, that machine watches what you watch and makes recommendations about what you ought to watch; it is building up your history and using your history and other people's history in order to tell you what you ‘want’ to do. And you know Amazon does it. Lots of purchasing platforms do it – these are basically historical recommendation systems.

So now, if we acknowledge that, then we can ask whether our historians should engage with computer scientists that design these systems, because historians have been selecting things from the past for a very long time, they’ve built up expertise doing that, and they often think quite deeply about the decisions they want to put to their readers. And so, if that's true, why wouldn't we then begin to think about historians as human recommendation systems? Why wouldn’t we think about the way they make decisions, and have them collaborate with computer scientists to think together about how we can design better digital systems that are fairer and more ethical?

Are you optimistic we can learn from history and make the world fairer and more ethical? Even before COVID-19, the planet was facing some very difficult, and potentially catastrophic, challenges.

It's such an interesting question and a lot of my colleagues are returning to Hannah Arendt and her notion of the banality of evil. It’s this notion that you can habitually step through life and make decisions, day to day, that can sleepwalk us into outcomes that are not good for our children or grandchildren and not good for the world beyond the boundaries that we happen to live in.

We know that we need to act globally on some important issues, whether that's human rights or protecting the climate or thinking about new approaches to industry. But we also have to think through who's got the capability and the ability to do something about those things. So, what are the structures that enable that change to happen?

We've thought about human rights for a while. We thought about climate change and other big things and ideas for a long while. But our global aspirations haven't always been matched by our global actions and our ability to do things. And that's because a lot of our structures and systems and ways of doing things have heritage, essentially, in nation states and pride of nation.

So again, you can hear the historian in me – the beauty of my training in history is I understand we've encountered problems similar to these before, not all exactly like these ones, but we have encountered similar problems, and we can learn from how people managed to navigate them.

And philosophical training really gives you the ability to think, ‘How could it be done differently, what could be different?’ And, playing out across UniSA, I see people doing the same thing day in, day out. Asking, ‘How do I take the discipline that I know well, apply it to the situation I'm thinking in and do something good?’ I've just been overwhelmed by researchers in the current situation saying, ‘What more can I do? How can I help? What can I do?’

And you know, that's why I say you don't choose your time, but you can choose who you meet it with. And I've just been just blown away with how generous and caring everybody at UniSA has been so far.