The role of university research in tackling social challenges and driving economic growth

“Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Nullius in verba. The Latin phrase meaning ‘take nobody’s word for it’ was – and still is – the motto of UK’s Royal Society, a research academy set up in 1660 by a community of professors and academics with keen interest on exploring the world through experimental investigation.

The society, now believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world, became the catalyst for research throughout the globe and opened up doors in every field imaginable, from new scientific discoveries, to breakthroughs in the arts, and even impressive achievements through modern-day technology.

Since then, the pace of research development has accelerated greatly, making it difficult to keep track of advancements.

Image courtesy of Queen’s University Belfast

“While some in the community might view this rapid growth of knowledge as an indication that we’ve pretty much covered all that needs to be discovered, the application and impact of academic research on our daily lives continues apace,” writes Paul Johnson on The importance of academic research.

“The truth is that we can’t really begin to imagine what the world will be like in 30 years. We do know it will be fundamentally different from today; and we can be sure that it will be different because of technology, advanced knowledge and innovation which will most certainly start out in the university research environment.”

Today, global governments increasingly look to research-intensive universities to invest in long-term solutions for the latest challenges of the modern world.

These institutions have the capacity to produce powerful academic structures – particularly in low- and middle-income countries – and make it possible for nations to compete in a sophisticated, global and in-depth knowledge economy.

But in a progressively internationalised and inter-connected world, it becomes all too easy to disregard the university’s significant contribution in developing every aspect of our daily lives.

With the rise of threats like climate change, invasive technologies and potential pandemics, as well as frequently occurring natural and man-made disasters, Australia’s prestigious higher education coalition, The Group of Eight, points out that change is inevitable – and is here to stay.

“One of the important roles of universities has been to make some of these changes possible,” writes a Group of Eight discussion paper.

Image courtesy of Maastritch University

“They have done this by educating an ever greater proportion of the population and broadening its perspectives; by performing research that creates new understanding, new technologies and the potential for action; and by providing a store of knowledge and capabilities that society as a whole has been able to draw upon.

“Moreover, universities have played what in some cases has been an even more significant role: that of helping society understand why these changes are taking place.”

Above all, research-active and intensive institutions are not only the most dominant force in the global pyramid of higher education; they are also intrinsic to the success of any contemporary, knowledge-based economy.

If you wish to become part of the ground-breaking field of higher education research, here are 6 world-leading global research universities that can help you take the first steps on that journey:


The University of Pretoria (UP) is South Africa’s leading research university as well as the nation’s largest and one of the most influential institutions of higher learning. With its seven unique campuses and diverse portfolio of more than 1,800 academic programmes, UP is at the forefront of the region’s tertiary education, collaborating with world-class partners to ensure continuing excellence in both its learning and teaching resources.

Image courtesy of the University of Pretoria

Research at UP is at the apex of the university’s long-term strategic plan – UP 2025 – which is to be a superior, research-intensive university. Deliberately balancing focus between research, innovation and fostered partnerships, UP creates an environment that is entirely conducive to scholarly pursuits. As an esteemed provider of higher education, UP is nationally and internationally recognised for the quality of its research and the breadth of its research outputs.

UP’s annual research reports and reviews, published in recent years, are clear illustrations of the institution’s impressive achievements while its research networks and partnerships accentuate the significance of collaboration in an increasingly global and complex world. The university’s Expert Lecture Series, a programme designed by UP’s Vice-Chancellor and principal, showcases UP’s leading experts’ engagement with the wider public.

The university hones research on areas of critical importance within developing nations – especially those in Africa and in the Global South.

UP represents a perfect choice for international students looking to get involved in world-class research in an innovative, diverse and welcoming environment.


As an integral part of the respected Russell Group – a collection of 24 of the UK’s leading, research-intensive universities – Queen’s University Belfast is known globally as a centre of teaching excellence and innovative research. Paired with its status as the ninth oldest institution in the UK higher education system, Queen’s combines an international reputation for academic excellence with a life-changing student experience and a unique creative culture.

Image courtesy of Queen’s University Belfast

More than 75% of Queens’ research activity has been deemed either internationally-excellent or world-leading. In food security, education, pharmacy, health, modern languages, astrophysics, engineering, cyber security, English and history, Queen’s research impacts right across society.

Of the institution’s individual research disciplines, 14 have been ranked within the UK’s Top 20, with six of these making waves in the Top 10 and two in the Top 5. This outstanding performance underlines the breadth and depth of Queens’ research merit, with 95% of academic staff returned – the fifth-largest percentage of staff returned across all UK universities.

Throughout the Queen’s University structure, dominant research academics collaborate across disciplines and with external agencies on projects with global magnitude. The University’s institutes reveal new and exciting horizons and opportunities, allowing scholars to make crucial progress in areas of global challenge.


Through the diverse research programmes at the prestigious University of Exeter, graduates leave with the urge to actively engage in a complex, global society, instilled with an awareness of issues in sustainability alongside an in-depth understanding of varied cultures and differing international perspectives.

As an esteemed Russell Group University, Exeter’s research makes a tangible difference on all four corners of the globe. With its sterling team of qualified academics, Exeter is at the forefront of research in science, engineering, mathematics and medical research, and boasts a phenomenal reputation in social science and the humanities.

Image courtesy of the University of Exeter


Maastricht University (UM) is the most internationally diverse provider of higher education in The Netherlands, known for its ground-breaking education model, global character and cross-disciplinary approach to its academics and research.

UM’s multidisciplinary collaborations contribute to solving major societal issues within its contemporary research themes. Wherever possible, UM’s research renders social, economic and financial value.

The university participates in centres of excellence, both technological and social, to allow scientific discoveries to be swiftly converted into practical applications.

Additionally, research is integrated into education at every level, laying the groundwork for students to embrace research and the scientific method from the very first day of their studies.


Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) seeks to provide high-quality education to a culturally diverse student body, preparing them for successful entrance to the global workforce. Through its high-quality programmes and impactful research, FIT seeks to expand knowledge through basic and applied research, serving the diverse economic, cultural, and societal needs of its local, state, national and international constituencies.

Image courtesy of Florida Institute of Technology

FIT’s Office of the Vice President for Research supports all faculty and student endeavours to explore innovative solutions to the nation’s most challenging issues. As a national research university, Florida Tech has made major additions and improvements to facilities that enhance the research components of nearly all aspects of undergraduate and graduate education.


As one of the top three U.S. public universities, the University of Virginia (UVA) is committed to developing the full potential of talented students from all walks of life. The school’s enduring legacy of honour and student self-governance prepares tomorrow’s leaders for the challenges they are sure to face.

Research at UVA continues to uphold the ideals that made the institution so unique among other universities: its pursuit of discovery through collaboration and cross-disciplinary exploration. With core investments in strengthening its research capabilities, UVA is focusing research on intellectual and social challenges where it can have the most impact.

Feature image courtesy of the University of Pretoria

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