Academic social responsibility: Crossing the boundaries!

Social responsibility

Believe it or not, I came across the term ‘social responsibility’ when I first discussed the ‘Generic attributes’ or ‘Generic skills’ as a component of the unit outline when teaching first and third year subjects Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Canberra. I used to discuss with the students how to be socially responsible from a student perspective.

The example frequently used by academics initiating such discussion in class rooms was the relationship between chemistry and climate change, environment, quality of life, etc. This stimulated students’ interests in chemistry, inspiring them to use their knowledge to resolve crucial problems in our world.

However, when I asked myself about my understanding of ‘academic social responsibility’, I was intrigued and could not find a definite answer.

Is it what we do in academia for social good?

Teaching those who will shape the future of our country, helping them to gain skills for employment, doing research trying to answer questions about certain topics and how to improve the quality of life?

Aren’t these all done for the benefit of the society?

Do we need to cross the boundaries of academia and tackle issues of national challenges?

Science literacy in public or science education in schools for examples?

Do we have to care about these issues?

Do we have to teach the public how to think about science?

Or show how science is vital to our daily life, future health, sustainability and prosperity? How scientific knowledge has been applied to our benefit? How scientists have worked to understand the very nature of things so that benefits might flow from that knowledge?

Do we need to address the decline in the number of students studying science?

Ashraf Ghanem and his team do all of the above, as in the below video.

Academic social responsibility includes engaging every academic in the community where they live, which can be expressed as an interest in what’s happening in the community as well as in the active participation in solving some of the local problems. It is a commitment every academic has towards the society — contributing towards social, scientific, cultural and ecological causes.

Social responsibility is based on an individual’s ethics. Instead of giving importance only to those areas where one has material interests (like teaching a cohort of students or doing research in the lab) the individual supports issues for philanthropic reasons.

Individual social responsibility forms the base for corporate social responsibility because if everyone in academia does their bit, the bigger things automatically fall into place.

Trends show that developed countries recorded high growth due to the social responsibility efforts of individuals and not corporations or the government.

Individual social responsibility may appear impractical in the modern competitive world where everyone works for self-interest, but it will succeed if we make decisions based on what will benefit a large number of people while respecting everyone’s fundamental rights. As academics we can make our small contributions to society by donating not money but knowledge in science.

Academic social responsibility is part of our academic job. It should be implemented by crossing academic boundaries and talking to the public about what we do and how important science is in our life.

We need to care about science in general and science education specifically. We need to carefully judge opinions expressed in a scientific way. We need to teach how to think and speak science. We need to enhance science literacy in public and science education in schools.

Being science literate doesn’t mean to be a professional scientist, but it does mean that one uses the processes of science and draws conclusions from evidence. This has a direct beneficial impact on the academic environment.

Scientific literacy is not just about grasping technical concepts, it is about curiosity, a questioning approach, a willingness to test claims with evidence, and a willingness to discover. These intellectual skills should be encouraged and taught explicitly to all around the country, across all levels, and applied to a wide range of questions and discussions, not only scientific ones. Being ‘science literate’ will no longer be just an advantage but an absolute necessity for the society. It is our responsibility as academics to foster this engagement.

Inspired by our academic social responsibility and our commitment to engage with the community, and sponsored by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) ACT, The National Science Week Committee and the Australian Government, we hosted a couple of public events in the ACT. The Crystal Growing Competition, the slime Christmas party, and soap and candle making workshops with Inspire Australia are among the largest events we organized at the University of Canberra and CSIRO Discovery center.

Growing crystals (from rudescience on Tumblr) to teach social responsibility

Growing crystals (from rudescience on Tumblr)

It is through these public events that we want to reignite that scientific spark for our younger generations to encourage them, to engage them, to help them participate in science.

Children might see crystals every day in sugar or salt, or they might know that many tiny crystals are part of TV screens, but these events allow them to think about science, discover and observe the process of how crystals form. It’s a fun way of learning about the fundamental principles of science or chemistry.

This competition creates a unique niche that teaches students to develop critical thinking. It involves scientific discovery and communication with other people, teaching valuable skills. The competition develops traits such as patience as they see their crystals grow over several weeks, and it can help form a good critical mind.  It helps students to think about what could happen before they do it, to create a hypothesis and to scientifically try to achieve it. Students learn various lessons; sometimes they learn experiments do not work the first time. Some experiments fail, then they have to try again. That is how problem solving is developed from a young age.

When we look at these crystals the progress made in classrooms is just the beginning of greater things. The experience can teach students to form their own opinions rather than take those of others as the ultimate answers. In science, students learn collaboration as they search online, get information from books and from different people and sources such as mentors and peers. But it’s not just following others: it is initiation and discovery. The best thing that can come from all this is that students will be able to learn skills to form their own opinion about various life challenges as they grasp the excitement of science as it crystallizes into a real-life crystal.

We started this competition in 2011 for the first time in the ACT with around 200 students from ACT schools. The feedback was great so we decided to expand the competition to attract more students. In 2012, the competition attracted around 1500 students from all ACT schools. This year, the competition is part of Canberra centenary celebration.

In Summary

Academic social responsibility is imperative for academics that not only direct benefits academia but also the community.

Below are some more views about social responsibility.

‘I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.’ ~ George Bernard Shaw

‘We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.’ ~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

‘A machine has value only as it produces more than it consumes — so check your value to the community.’ ~ Martin H. Fischer

‘A man is called selfish not for pursuing his own good, but for neglecting his neighbour’s.’ ~ Richard Whately

‘We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.’ ~ Herman Melville

Ashraf Ghanem on social responsibilityDr Ashraf Ghanem

AProf. Dr Ashraf Ghanem studied Chemistry at the University of Stuttgart, Germany where he conducted his master degree (MSc) with Prof. Franz Effenberger. In 1999, he joined the group of Prof. Rolf D. Schmid and Uwe Bornscheuer at the Institute for Technical Biochemistry, University of Stuttgart, Germany. In 2000, he was awarded a Scholarship from the German Research Council (DFG) to conduct his PhD with Prof. Volker Schurig at the University of Tuebingen, Germany. In 2002, he received his PhD and joined the group of Prof. Paul Muller at the University of Geneva, Switzerland as post doctoral fellow. In 2004, he was appointed Scientist and Head of the Biomedicinal Chemistry Unit, KFSHRC, Saudi Arabia. In 2008, he was appointed Pfizer research fellow/Lecturer at ACROSS with Prof. Paul Haddad, School of Chemistry, University of Tasmania. In 2010, he was awarded the Australian Endeavor and the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS) Awards at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, Japan with Prof. Nobuo Tanaka nd Tohru Ikegami. In 2011 he returned to Australia and was appointed AProf. at the University of Canberra. In 2012, he received the Discovery translation award from ANU connect and the ACT gov. for developing high potential commercial projects in Australia. In 2014, he received the Australia Endeavor Research Award at NIMS, Tsukuba, Japan. He is a Fellow and president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) ACT and the Head of the Chirality group in Canberra ( In 2016, He was awarded the innovation connection grant followed by a $8.7M CRC-P on dry blood spot from the Australian government. Ghanem’s research interests lie in the area of asymmetric and enantioselective catalysis and analysis.  His work on lipase and dirhodium catalysis and chiral analysis has been well cited worldwide. He has more than 90 international publications. He teaches into Organic Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry at UC.

Dr Ashraf Ghanem

A/Professor of Organic Chemistry
President of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) ACT
Biomedical Science Program
Faculty of ESTEM
University of Canberra