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Updated: Jul 23, 2021

As my time with the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program comes to an end, it is an opportune time to reflect on what this program has meant to me. It is not an understatement to say that the last 12 months have been the most uncertain I have experienced in my working career. As an unwanted consequence of a global pandemic, an extremely fiscally tight environment, and the higher education sector in a heightened period of change, the Global Challenges program has been placed on hold, best described as hibernation. If and how it will continue in the future is uncertain. Whilst at the core I have been angry and frustrated at seeing the program I worked so hard be placed on hold, I have made a conscious decision to instead ensure the learnings from this program are not lost in the hope that they can therefore continue more broadly, across not only the whole of UOW but across the sector.

Photos: Global Challenges Internal Launch 2013

It is hard to turn my mind back to mid-2013, when my passion for research making an impact combined with a vision from the UOW executive, led to the creation of an interdisciplinary challenge-led research program. I cast my mind back to what the research environment and culture was like, not only at UOW but more broadly. At the recent UOW strategic planning session many spoke about the importance of interdisciplinary research, community engagement, promoting women, early & mid-career researchers, sustainability & UN SDGs. These are what the success of research institutions of the future are going to be measured by. This doesn’t mean that publishing and attracting research grants will suddenly stop being important, but we need to pivot and decide what the critical indicators of success are today, especially as we tackle wicked global problems of pandemics, climate change, and ageing populations, just to name a few.

Photos: Global Challenges UN SDG mapping

I am not naïve in thinking that the “Global Challenges” way is the one-stop solution for achieving the transition to a new research and research leadership model. However, I believe over the last eight years we were given a gift of envisioning and developing a program that allowed us to trial a whole new way of doing things. Whilst not everything we tried was successful, and even the things that were successful weren’t for everyone, I have thought about the five things that I would like to see live-on in some form at UOW and hopefully more broadly.

Live your Values

Whilst a lot of time and money is often spent developing an organisation’s values, what is often lost is how to ensure these values are lived.

Very early at Global Challenges, we knew we wanted to be supportive, inclusive and had a strict “no-dickheads” rule. This held true for people who worked on our team, researchers we funded and the community we surrounded ourselves with. We lived our values in the way we operated and engaged with our supported teams. One example that always springs to mind is when three male professors applied for a grant, but all couldn’t make the pitch session, so they sent in a young female research assistant to do the pitch. She knocked it out of the park. We agreed to fund the project only if she was named as an investigator. Over the year we watched as she went from strength to strength, receiving external awards, building an impressive network with government and industry, leading to her PhD in the area of that very first pitch.

Photo: Our Values on display in the Global Challenges Office

A few years ago we sat down and tried to capture our values in a few words, they are: Adventurous, Collegial, Inclusive, Supportive, and because they were lived values we made sure we stuck to them.

Re-Defining Success

Not only was the design of the Global Challenges Program on a blank canvas, so was the way that its success would be measured.

I am very wary of setting KPIs as often they have unwanted consequences, primarily focusing on quantity, not quality. For example, if we had set the number of grant applications as a measure of success, we might have encouraged more researchers to apply, even if they weren’t ready, wasting their time, and increasing the workload of the reviewers and administration. This wouldn’t lead to quality research projects being funded. Our view was that if you gave good people and good projects resources and support, that the outcomes would follow. From this belief we came up with the 5Ps as success measures; People, Projects, Publications & Funding, Partnerships, and Promotion and Reputation.

We knew that each team and project would have areas where they excelled, and we were going to take a holistic view of success.

Whilst our measures are still qualitative, what you can’t measure is the value to an ECR of getting the opportunity to lead their first research team; an engineer and social scientists becoming colleagues who regularly discuss ideas over coffee, or that external stakeholders are genuinely involved in projects from their inception.

Photo: Interdisciplinary Research in Action

The quantitative numbers are also there, with the program achieving an eight-fold return in investment, with 500 researchers on 126 projects, one-third of which had external researchers, with gender equity in research leadership and 28% of projects led by ECRs (had to get some stats in).

Photos: The Global Challenges Success wall and 5P statistics from the Global Challenges 2020 Annual Report

We encouraged new teams to work together, some of these failed, but they were encouraged to evolve their team composition or project and come back. Failure wasn’t seen as a negative, but part of the creative process to get the right people in the room talking about the right project.

Be Flexible and Solution Focused.

As someone who has left academia within a decade of completing a PhD, I knew I wanted to make it easy for researchers to do research.

Photo: # JustAskTam origin

Our Universities tend to be driven by the false economy of “free labour” of academics but it was always central to me that every minute a researcher was doing administration and not doing research was an opportunity cost to the potential outcomes of their research. That research might be saving an endangered animal, changing mental health policy, or making a new device that could assist in a more sustainable future. That being said, I don’t accept the false narrative of the superiority of academics over non-academic staff in a University. Researchers get to do what they love and many people are employed as professional staff to support them, and these professional staff deserve equal value in their career and need to be recognised and supported. With that approach set, the Global Challenges team was tasked by me with never passing the buck and trying to find a solution for all issues that arose. In practice this manifested through low documentation grant applications, taking the academic year into account when planning grant rounds, developing an online application, removing unwanted signature requirements. It also meant developing a system of staged research funding, and a “don’t fund and forget” model, where we kept in regular contact with teams. Two examples spring to mind here, both with local Indigenous communities. One team needed flexible ongoing funding to support their engagement with local community members, so over the years we tried to be as supportive as we could to provide a baseline of flexible funding. This project went on to receive a major competitive research funding grant. Another was when a Lead Researcher was taking maternity leave, data analysis needed to be completed so papers could be written for external grants, so we provided a small amount of RA funding, this kept the project from stalling and resulted in the community members receiving grants they needed to continue the projects.

Photos: Funding risker project including Dementia and Art, Sensory Rooms, Dragging the Chain, PetaJakarta, 3D printed microtonal flutes and after school cultural programs to name a few.

Team Building

Global Challenges was floated when UOW had 11 faculties, by the time it was launched we had 5, but we decided on a 3 faulty rule for interdisciplinarity.

I am not going to discuss here if this was or wasn’t the right definition of “interdisciplinarity” but what I would say is that we didn’t take this “rule” lightly. If GC was going to be successful in bringing teams together, then that is what we needed to do. Someone once compared us to a “match-making” service, and whilst I am not sure that was meant as a compliment, that is how we took it.

We held drop-in sessions, coffee catch-ups, challenge workshops, presented and attended community and industry engagement events and meetings. If you need a disability lawyer, a dietitian, a materials scientist, a human geographer, an artist, we would introduce you. If we didn’t know who to connect you with we would find out or we would support you to find someone from outside our networks. As a scientist, I have learnt so much about the value of the SHAPE disciplines and it has been transformational in how I view the world, and this is the gift that working in a diverse team gives.

Photo: Keystone Funded Teams 2018, credit Paul Jones UOW

Getting a team to submit a grant application is one thing, but getting a research project to run successfully is another. So we created guides on how to lead and run projects (long before virtual zoom meetings, and shared OneDrive folders were the norm). We also helped mentor and problem solve when projects needed support. Often it felt like we were the safety net below projects, nice for them to know we were there, essential when needed and providing the support for them to strive higher and succeed.

Photo: Global Challenges Inductions, training and zoom drop-ins


I have intentionally left this one to last, as being one of the inaugural leaders of this program, it seemed a little self-serving to say that leadership was one of the major take-homes from the program that I would like to see become ubiquitous. What I am talking about here is not positional leadership, rather, it is situational and personal leadership.

Over the last eight years, I worked alongside six inspirational professors as challenge leaders and program executive directors. They were critical for the program’s success, these leaders shared or gave away power to ensure the development of leadership in others, and I personally benefited greatly from this.

Photo: GC Leaders in action

I look around the campus now at people who are Associate Professors or Professors who were ECRs when we announced our first round of funding in 2013, I can see the role that being part of the Global Challenges family has had in their development and am hopeful that we helped create a generation of leaders who will lift as they climb. This is a legacy for which the program can be justifiably proud.

To the future awaits both me and the Global Challenges Program and many thank to all of the GC team who have truly become family - Sharon, Chris, Geoff, Lorna, Kerrylee, Clive, Stuart, Kate, India, Suzi, Nicole, James, Anna, Ellie, Rowena, Tasch, Amy, Jessica, Diana, Georgia, Emma and Liz.

Photos: The Global Challenges Family

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