Head of UNSW Engineering outlines bold plans

Wednesday 5 August, 2015

UNSW Dean of Engineering, Professor Mark Hoffman, has a bold plan for improving Australia’s leading Engineering faculty’s performance.

Professor Hoffman’s goal is to see the faculty enter the ranks of the top 20 engineering faculties mainly by improving the way it translates its research into applications.”

Speaking at Warrane on Wednesday 5 August 2015, Professor Hoffman said the Faculty of Engineering was already a “powerhouse of engineering technology and research” and was ranked in the world’s top 50 among the 30,000 universities in the world.

He said this meant it had exceptional responsibilities and even though it was already doing very well, it’s performance in translating research into applications was not doing so well on a world scale.

“Australia among the OECD countries ranks about 35th of 38th in terms of translating research into applications,” he said.

“UNSW in my view could be in the top 20 universities in the world simply by improving the rate at which we do this.

“Because we produce the largest proportion of the country’s engineering graduates and we are the backbone of the country’s engineering research we have a special responsibility to play our part. We have to contribute to the national and international effort to develop solutions for society.”

Professor Hoffman has been the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), since 2012 and  was previously Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Science and Head of the School of Materials Science and Engineering. Over the years he has played a significant role in UNSW being ranked 17th in the world in Materials Science.

He told the College’s residents that engineering was about improving people’s lives - something it had been doing even before the profession had a name. It provided an interface between discovery and application, bringing innovation to life.

He said there were enormous challenges in a rapidly evolving world “buffeted by massive economic, technological, environmental and cultural, political forces”.

“Never has engineering been more essential to society,” he said. “It is so diverse it is hard to see a common thread between its many facets . . .

“It creates the skylines of the world’s cities, brings clean water and sanitation to remote towns and villages and allows people to access knowledge and services on an unprecedented scale.”

Professor Hoffman said the public often thought of engineers as people who wear hard hats and vests, but that was to do with only a small fraction of what engineers do today.

“These days it is more about technology, design, biotechnology, conservation and environmental sustainability,” he said. “What is common to all of these things is they are helping to make life better. This is particularly the case with the rising challenges of technology and population growth. 

“There are now more than 6 billion people and the world is more crowded, more consuming, more polluting, more connected, and in some ways less diverse than in any time in history.

"There is a growing recognition that humans are altering the earth’s natural systems, from local to global, at an unprecedented rate.

“The changes are so vast that they are actually comparable to those seen at the transition of geological epochs. When you look back at history and you see that climate change was caused by geological factors. It is now being caused - and unquestionably - by what humans are doing.

"This has never happened before.”

Professor Hoffman said engineers were called on to help satisfy the basic needs of a booming population for water, sanitation, nutrition, health and safety, while preserving the current capacity of our ecosystems’ biological diversity.

Engineers would play an essential role in solving these challenges, partly because it was often low-tech solutions that were the cause of detrimental environmental effects.

Challenges included new forms of irrigation, a lack of proper sewerage and burning wood for fuel or relying too much on fossil fuels for energy. But engineers did not develop the technological solutions in a vacuum. They had to factor in economic considerations, thinking about costs and trying to make things that achieve goals in the “least resource-intensive manner”.

“They have to factor in solutions that are efficient enough to make them feasible,” he said. “Scientists can create solutions without these restraints. But engineers are needed to realise those potential solutions and make them workable for the benefit of the world.

“For Australia this is especially crucial. We live in a vast continent that has an abundance of some resources like iron, natural gas, and coal, but a shortage of others, like water and people.

“We have a highly educated and innovative population but we are really short of people to transfer this knowledge into reality.”

Professor Hoffman pointed out that over the past 10 years Australia had imported more engineers through immigration than it had actually educated at its own universities.

He said Australians generally struggled to recognise what actually generates their wealth and good fortune.

“In reality, in the 21st century it is knowledge or know-how that generates wealth - faster computing, better products, higher efficiency energy systems, more productive software. And yet our leaders in business and our business press focus very heavily on business deals and trade in commodities.

“While these are a more efficient use of know-how, they don’t actually create know-how.”

“Take mining. the very epitome of a cyclical industry, constantly swinging from boom to bust and back again.”

The mining industry which had been through many cycles. In recent times plunging ore prices had erased $74 billion off the market value of Australia’s key iron-ore stocks and there had been a dramatic fall in the Australian dollar because the mining boom was faltering.

“We have to focus on mining know-how rather than mining resources,” Professor Hoffman said..

Because of the many challenges faced by Australia and the world the future of engineering had never been brighter.

The UNSW engineering faculty had nearly 12000 students and their future impact would be  profound.

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