Universities are key to easing tomorrow's global tensions


Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 7:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 7:28 p.m.

Food and water will be the primary causes of future wars, and experts — particularly at universities — could play a big role in easing the prospects of war if those experts get out of their academic silos and start talking with one another, Ron Sims, former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told an audience Wednesday at a University of Florida conference on sustainability.

Sims marked an inspiring end to the two-day conference titled "Sustaining Economies and Natural Resources in a Changing World."

"Sustainability demands change, and people to define their common grounds," Sims said. "Universities are bastions for doing it right."

Sims added that "we'll never have change in the community unless people talk to each other ... universities need to get past silos so (departments) talk to each other."

Talking about water specifically, Sims said cholera, a water-borne disease, still kills about a million children each year.

"There's not enough clean water to serve humankind," Sims said. He added that dirty water "becomes a cauldron where diseases cook, particularly infectious diseases."

Overcoming challenges such as disease on a global scale requires minds at work more than politicians, Sims said.

"Universities, community groups and business communities will hold the keys to communities' futures," he added.

According to Professor Jack Payne, senior vice president of IFAS, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science at UF, Sims' talk "really demonstrates what a land grant university is all about."

Part of the purpose of the conference was to revisit the principles of the Morrill Act, which established land grant universities 150 years ago.

The University of Florida was one of those established, and the impetus behind the act was to send people to college to learn about agriculture and the "mechanical arts," now known as engineering.

Today these universities are endowed with missions that are more global.

"I think what we did was lay out the huge challenges that we have," Payne said about the conference.

"How are we going to feed 9 billion people, protect the ecosystem, provide for food safety, all under the umbrella of climate change?" Payne said. "That's a huge challenge for the earth."

"People need to be aware of the power of our research universities and understand why funding for universities" is so important, Payne continued.

IFAS faces over $11 million in federal funding cuts to research, Payne told The Sun earlier this week. He added that federal dollars account for more than a third of the IFAS budget, which supports outreach programs, food stamps, nutritional programs and agricultural extension offices.

"I feel like our country is walking away from funding the public good," Payne said.

Meanwhile, China, South Korea and Germany are pouring billions of dollars into public universities and "stealing our faculty to lead them," Payne said.

It is predicted that China will have the world's largest economy by 2020, and India the second largest by 2040, Sims added. "We will be third."

"We're in a brand-new world with brand-new demands. We need to allow young people the opportunity to compete and find solutions," Sims said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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