Failing to succeed - managing risks in research, November 2018

Peter Shergold began his career in academia. He has received a BA in Politics and American Studies from the University of Hull, an MA in History at the University of Illinois, and a PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics. After serving as a lecturer and the Head of the Department of Economic Histories at the University of New South Wales, he transitioned into a career in public service.

In 2003, Peter was selected by the Howard government to serve as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the country’s most senior public servant. In this role, Peter delivered the report of the Task Group on Emissions Trading which was presented to, and crucially, accepted by the Commonwealth government.

This great success lead into a great failure - the incumbent government lost office at the next election, causing the policy platform developed by the report to never be realised, with the Rudd government pursuing a different emissions trading scheme implementation, and the Liberal party renouncing its support for an emissions trading scheme. This represented the missing of an extremely narrow window of opportunity - there may never be the same opportunity to get approval for this important policy.

Peter leveraged his experience with this failure and others in order to produce the report Learning from Failure: why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past, and how the chances of success in the future can be improved. This report was an investigation into the systemic and recurring factors which caused large scale initiatives to fail, with particular focus on why the Rudd government’s Home Insulation Program, a program which on paper required only simple tasks and should have been simple to accomplish, went wrong in the way that it did.

A common theme is structures which create a veneer of plausible deniability, in which ambiguity over who has access to what information and who was involved in each decision is deliberately created in order to shield politicians from accountability for their actions.

People tend to accept failures only to the extent that they can avoid publicly acknowledging personal responsibility. We can look back on and identify structural and organisational failures, but find it harder to admit personal failures. This holds us back from being able to truly learn from our mistakes.

This can be traced to a culture which does not accept the universality of the experience of failure, stigmatising those who experience failure rather than recognising the potential for failure to be liberating.

An international movement has started based on the concept of “fuckup nights”, events in which people come together in order to share personal stories of failure in business. Events such as these aim to create a “safe space” for sharing personal failures and normalise the experience of failure.

The idea of success through failure has recently been prominent as a managerial fad in the corporate management community, but has been slow to be adopted in other fields. Academia is an area where developing a more positive attitude towards failure is of particular importance. Surveys have revealed that most early career academics feel overwhelmed by feelings of personal inadequacy, but the universality of this experience remains undiscussed. We need to resolve this issue by promoting a culture of being open about failure through a “sense of dark academic humour”.

A positive attitude towards failure is also crucial for those in leadership positions. Leaders cannot justify and explain failure only in terms of the system and process of decision making, as they are an integral component of this structure, so must be the ones to take responsibility for these types of failures.

A failure to come to decisions in a collective way is a frequent issue - the key to resolving these failures of leadership is in enabling people below the leadership level to be able to have ownership of the problem in order to have investment in the solution. In this bottom-up paradigm of collective decision making, emotional intelligence becomes as important as strategic and analytical intelligence in making the right decisions.

Some memorable quotes about failure:

  • “Failure is a liberating, energising thing”
  • “Failure has two important roles: to strike down public figures that we hate, and to test the fortitude of those that we admire”
  • “[on discussing failure in academia] If you can’t say anything nice, say it as more of a comment than a question”

Further reading:

Professor Peter Shergold

Professor Peter Shergold

Written by Nicholas Collins, photographs by Yawei Jiang.

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Media workshop, November 2018

In November, the 2018 Global Change scholars participated in a media training workshop. Some images from this event are below.


Media workshop

Media workshop

Media workshop

Media workshop

Future wars: The changing nature of conflict, November 2018

Professor Tim Dunne, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of UQ, gave us an insightful, intriguing, and incredibly thought-provoking presentation on the nature of war in the 21st century. Starting with a brief overview of the character of ‘old wars’, Professor Dunne went on to explain the differences between justifiable and unjustifiable 21st century wars, and the interesting distinction between political and privatised warfare. “Thinking about the rationality of war, in old wars, the idea is generally that you go to war and when it ends you’ve met your war aims. In 21st century wars, there’s a big question around whether any of the antagonists actually want the war to end.”

Professor Tim Dunne

Professor Tim Dunne

Food security & systems, Professor Bill Bellotti, October 2018

In his seminar, Professor Bill Bellotti presented to the Global Change Scholars Cohort his research in China and India on sustainability and food security. He described how his project improved farmers’ livelihoods through efficient use of resources in crop-livestock farming system and with innovative cropping systems. Another key method of his research was the creation of women self-help groups, and education and empowerment of farmers, so they can be the creators of innovation – “These women went from being labourers, to farmers, to researchers, to teachers” said Professor Bellotti.

Professor Bellotti also underlined the importance of listening to people. We have to make sure our research is relevant, we have to get out in the real world and talk to those who are impacted by our research.

We can’t be sustainable unless we get on top of how we produce food. What can we do as individuals? Become informed, eat responsibly, reduce waste, reduce waist, consume meat in moderation, support local food production, grow our own, reduce ‘junk’ food consumption.


  • Professor Bill Bellotti talked about his research in China and India on sustainability and food security.
  • The project aim is to improve farmer livelihoods through efficient use of resources in crop-livestock farming system and with innovative cropping systems.
  • Satisfying results in India have been obtained by the creation of women self-help groups and by educating and empowering farmer, so they can be the creators of innovation – “These women went from being labourers, to farmers, to researchers, to teachers” said Prof. Bellotti. Men were not excluded, they are part of the problem, so they have to be part of the solution.
  • It is important to listen to people and make sure our research is relevant. Get out in the real world and talk to those who are impacted by your research.
  • We can’t be sustainable unless we get on top of how we produce food
  • Childhood stunting: nutrition-specific (immediate determinants of maternal and child nutrition, adequate food and nutrient intake, feeding, care giving, low infectious diseases) vs nutrition-sensitive (underlying determinants of maternal and child nutrition, food and nutrition security, support for others, primary health care, food safety, hygiene, food marketing, women’s empowerment, education)
  • What can we do? Become informed, eat responsibly, reduce waste, reduce waist, meat consumption in moderation, support local food production, grow your own, reduce ‘junk’ food consumption (win-win for health & environment)
  • Food is very cultural. Rituals and events around respecting environment that has produced food. There is a lot of indigenous wisdom around food that we’ve lost and we need to bring back in.

Written by Chiara Carnevali.

Professor Bill Bellotti

Professor Bill Bellotti

Professor Bill Bellotti

Professor Bill Bellotti

Professor Bill Bellotti

Gathering of the 2017 & 2018 scholars, October 2018

It was a fantastic event, enjoyed by all on 4 October. The 2017 Scholars presented to the 2018 Scholars on various topics including PhD research, sustainable business ideas and internship experience.

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Breakfast with Tim Flannery, September 2018


Professor Flannery is an Australian zoologist, environmentalist, and writer who was named Australian of the Year in 2007 for his role as an effective communicator in explaining environmental issues and in bringing them to the attention of the Australian public. He has published more than 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers and has named 25 living and 50 fossil mammal species. His 32 books include the award winning The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers, which has been translated into more than 20 languages. He has made numerous documentaries and regularly writes for the New York Review of Books. In 2011 he was made a Chevalier of the Order of St Charles, and in 2015 received the Jack Blayney Award for Dialog from Simon Fraser University, Canada. In 2013 he founded he founded the Australian Climate Council, Australia’s largest and most successful crowdfunded organisation and is currently a professor at Melbourne University Sustainability Institute. His most recent book, Atmosphere of Hope. Searching for solutions to the climate crisis, deals with carbon negative technologies and is published by Harper Collins.


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Sustainable Change Retreat to Lady Elliot Island, June 2018

Kayaking on Lady Elliot Island

This year in June, the 2018 Global Change Scholars embarked on a four day retreat to Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay located at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Situated within a highly protected ’Green Zone’ the island is a sanctuary for over 1,200 species of marine life and is known for its abundance of manta rays, turtles, amazing array of spectacular marine life and unspoilt coral reef. In addition to direct wildlife encounters, the scholars had a unique opportunity to meet a team of dedicated individuals working in harmony with nature for the benefit of future generations. Among other accomplishments, the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort has reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions by introducing a combination of solar and gas technology, water desalination and various strategic behavioural adaptations on the island. In conjunction with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Lady Elliot Island has developed the first dedicated Climate Change Trail and Tour around the island to highlight the impacts that climate change could have on a coral cay eco system. 

Reflections from the ScholarsA handful of coral on Lady Elliot Island

Jessamine Hazlewood

“Friendship, interconnectedness and wonderment; these key terms summarize my experience at Lady Elliot Island. This trip presented unique opportunities to challenge ourselves, to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, but also to reflect on our own research projects and to see how our projects fit into the big picture. However, most importantly, this trip to LEI provided me an opportunity to connect with the other global change scholars and to form friendships and memories that I will cherish forever. 

Importantly, the retreat facilitated interdisciplinary communication and exposed me to different perspectives and ways of thinking. From stargazing on the shore, to intense games of foosball to gracefully losing at Pictionary, I feel like I have formed stronger bonds with my GCSP cohort and it has reinforced that I am not alone in the pursuit of scientific understanding….”

Rafaan Daliri

“….I was reminded that resources are limited and renewable energy is both possible and reliable. I was educated on the need for collaboration, empowerment and responsibility. I was encouraged to reflect on the volatile, uncertain and complex nature of the world we live in and galvanised to promote sustainability. Lady Elliot Island managed to teach me things that 12 years of schooling and three degrees at university had neglected. And so, with Lady Elliot Island as the spark that has incited my passion for transformative education for a sustainable future, I continue my journey. A journey in pursuit of ‘purpose’, in the hope to find my role and my place within the perfect design of our natural world and to encourage others to do the same.”

A group of eleven Global Change Scholars on Lady Elliot Island

Niclas Lundsgaard

“…The island provided a bonding experience like no other, and at times I swear I felt a tangible presence in the air as thirty bright minds came together and shaped thoughts and ideas that no single mind could – a collaboration that is only possible because every individual in that room was as passionate as the next, and all selflessly gave their time in discussions that were not planned and were not scheduled and were not compulsory. Because we all genuinely believe in creating change for a better tomorrow. LEI was a poignant reminder to us all of what we have to lose if we don’t act now, and in that sense it catalysed those passionate group discussions we had. It was a touching experience, one that I will not forget.”

Anna Hickling

“It was inspiring to sit back and listen to my peers critically evaluate global problems. Our reflections on how we can contribute to improving global outcomes were meaningful and provided a foundation for projects moving forward. It is very rare to have a group of individuals from all over the world, specializing in different disciplines, to come together and collaborate on how we can tackle the biggest problems in the world.” 

Shastra DeoTwo Global Change Scholars wading through ankle deep water on Lady Elliot Island

 “…Hearing from Peter Gash cemented the fact that Lady Elliot Island’s legacy is built on narrative and memory-making. Though we’d heard a great deal about the processes and difficulties that went into making human life sustainable on the island—the desalination and water-treatment processes being of particular interest to me—I still wanted a “why” that countered the simple human desire to live near and swim in the reef. What Peter spoke of was stewardship. Throughout history, Lady Elliot Island was a site that people took from, with no regard for the health and sustainably of the creatures who lived there, let alone the island itself. Now, Peter claims, he and his staff give to the island, and the island gives back in turn…

…If, as author Michael Joyce claims, “[e]verything can be read, every surface and silence, every breath and every vacancy, every eddy and current, everybody and its absence, every darkness every light”, then we must speak and write the language of Lady Elliot Island—through which it speaks its history, its needs, and its potential future(s)—and the language of all things on this earth, in every possible dialect: the historical, the scientific, the poetic, the photographic, and so on. That is a part of stewardship.”

Beautiful sunset on Lady Elliot Island