Summary: Mining billionaires Andrew and Nicola Forrest, founders of iron ore giant Fortescue Metals Group, are bringing together some of the brightest academic minds in Western Australia in a groundbreaking university education project.....
Through the $130 million Forrest Research Foundation, the philanthropists have launched a residential college that will provide a home, collaborative working spaces and living expenses for up to 60 PhD and post-doctoral researchers.
Uniquely for Australia, the scholars are drawn from five different universities in the state. The students will continue studying with the institution that gave them a place, but they'll live under one roof so they can share ideas and produce bigger results more quickly.
Forrest Research is part of the Forrests philanthopic arm, the Minderoo Foundation. The Forrests announced last year that Minderoo would donate $400 million, the largest charitable donation by living Australians. The Financial Review 2018 Rich List ranked Andrew and Nicola Forrest as the sixth wealthiest in Australia with a personal fortune of $6.84 billion. The donation is focused on six areas: curing global cancer; ending global slavery; closing the Indigenous parity gap; early childhood education; funding WA postgraduate university places; and support for arts, culture and the environment.
Nicola Forrest said the idea of the research foundation was to create a place where people felt comfortable working together.
"We've seen some concerning things in universities around the world where freedom of speech and debate has been suppressed for all sorts of reasons. University should be a healthy place for debate and where evidence prevails.
"What drives that is collaboration. You go so much further when you do things together. We're also looking for partnerships with industry and state government."
Large scale endowments
A new $30 million building, Forrest Hall, on the banks of the Swan River is the focal point for the foundation's tertiary education objectives.
Forrest Research mirrors other recent large-scale endowments that are working across the tertiary sector rather than with just one institution. The $3 billion Ramsay Foundation has launched the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which will offer places to 60 students, including 30 scholarships at two different universities, and pay the salaries of the teachers in its courses. It is expected to announce its partner universities next week.
The five institutions partnering with Forrest Research are University of Western Australia, Curtin, Murdoch, Edith Cowan and Notre Dame universities.
"Each uni has different areas of expertise," said Mrs Forrest. "It was very important to Andrew and me that we encompass all the unis and build on expertise we already have here in WA. We want to retain talent here in the state which we will do if people see a world-class hub."
Mrs Forrest said the aim was to retain top talent in the state and attract overseas scholars who would feed research and teaching across WA.
Students will live at the hall but be attached to one of the universities; the federal government will pay basic costs and the foundation will top this up.
Mrs Forrest said innovation and education were drivers of productivity but because WA was isolated it had to offer something a bit more to attract students. "It's for WA but it's inclusive; we have takers from all countries."
Scholarship criteria are wide and the Forrests are on the selection panel. Several recipients have been selected for study that is unique to the state.
"We have students looking at fish in the estuary, we have people looking at rock art in remote communities and others at rare species in the Pilbara. The actual subject isn't the most important thing. It's getting scholars thinking together," Mrs Forrest said.
Some research is related to the minerals industry, where the Forrests' wealth derives from, but this is not a priority. One student is working on offshore exploration structures, which is relevant to Fortescue, but was not a criterion for selection.
So far there are 31 students living in apartment-style units at Forrest Hall, which has the capacity for 60 people.
The Minderoo Foundation aims to underwrite research at all levels. Recently it signed a $50-million partnership with the state government, called the Early Years Initiative. This focuses on children from pre-natal to age eight and is intended to look at childhood development from a community perspective.
"One in five babies arrives developmentally delayed," said Mrs Forrest. "Billions are spent on programs that don't make a difference. We've been working with a school in Armidale [on the outskirts of Perth] and have garnered some great evidence.
"This is what philanthropic money can do. It partners with government and produces data."