What scientists want, redux: APLU structural recommendations for academia.

As set forth in the previous LOTRW post, what scientists want most is to see their research and advances in understanding applied for human benefit (and for the benefit of life more broadly). This hunger is universal and runs deep.

A case could be made that the gap between research and application is experienced most viscerally on university campuses. Researchers in government laboratories are closely connected daily to larger agency missions, legislative mandates, and the public purpose for their work. Scientists in corporate laboratories get marketplace signals on the reception of products and services derived from their research. Feedback, whether affirming or negative, is immediate and clear. By contrast, for many years academics have been working under a model that stresses basic research that may or may not see societal uptake. Impacts of their work are evaluated in terms of proxies: peer review, the citations/impact metrics resulting from their publications, etc. For academic researchers, the end value of their work can often be hard to see.

Universities and the national institutions funding basic research are aware of this problem and have explored different remedies. This is particularly true at state-supported schools, whose charters date back to the Morrill Act of 1862, explicitly purposed to foster agriculture and the mechanical arts (and hold the Union together during the Civil War). Performance evaluation for university faculty is typically couched in terms of three dimensions: research, teaching, and societal/community engagement. However, the first of these three is often given greater weight in promotion and tenure decisions. Funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation ask that research proposals speak to both intellectual merit and broader impacts, but in practice it is often the former that is evaluated with more rigor and emphasis.

Last month, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) weighed in, with a significant new report entitled Public-Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference[1]. The report is less of an ad-hoc fix and more a deep study of possible structural changes that could be made throughout the academic enterprise. The goal is not so much to supplant the current emphasis on basic research as to offer a clear complementary path for faculty whose skills/contributions fall more naturally on the applications side.

The report merits a thoughtful, complete read. The major findings give the flavor and at the same time motivate such a thorough study. So here they are, verbatim:

1. Adopt the overarching term “PIR” to better demonstrate value to the public.

  • Integrate PIR into advocacy for government and private support, showing how PIR relies upon and feeds fundamental research.
  • Contribute examples of how institutions and stakeholders use PIR in their messaging.

2. Conduct PIR more purposefully by adopting a variety of institutional approaches.

  • Identify PIR approaches that best reflect your own institutional and stakeholder cultures.
  • Adapt lessons from the experiences of other institutions, including international collaborations addressing global challenges.

3. Engage stakeholders broadly and across the entire spectrum of PIR activities.

  • Before launching a PIR initiative, consider whether the program meets the test proposed by the Kellogg Commission as the benchmark for an engaged institution and develop a plan for improving your engagement practices.
  • Identify key research strengths and how they align with important issues and needs within communities, with appropriate attention to special needs of diverse populations. Universities and partners ought to work closely with communities affected by these issues.
  • Work with partners to assess the cost of engagement as part of a PIR initiative and ensure that those costs are covered by project budgets.
  • Work with partners to develop goals for PIR initiatives and determine how progress toward those goals and the project’s community impact will be measured.

4. Communicate about PIR to all stakeholders to better convey significant public dividends.

  • Invest in communications, including human capital and dissemination tools.
  • Weave training for communication scholarship and impact to the public into the fabric of institutions.
  • Involve stakeholders (in content and, if possible, delivery) in highlighting the importance of PIR.

5. Build specific campus and stakeholder structures and policies to encourage PIR.

  • Build commitment among potential funders for research that addresses important social issues.
  • Continue to change the disciplinary-publication-focus of faculty advancement guidelines. Incentivize transdisciplinary research through explicit funding of cross-college/crossunit activities; examples include seed grants and provision of funds to the VPR to support transdisciplinary faculty hiring. Develop and share guidance for evaluating the quality and impact of non-traditional forms of academic outputs and work with stakeholders through APLU.
  • APLU and its member institutions should discuss with sponsors the possibility of using PIR and its associated typology as a means to provide consistent guidelines for measurement and evaluation of broader societal impacts.

Whew! A big list! But there are opportunities for every academic to plug in. And spread in this way over the entire academy, not only doable, but worth the effort, as society faces ever-bigger challenges of greater complexity and urgency. Public-Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference is a needed and welcome addition to an ongoing national conversation.


[1] My thanks to Roger Wakimoto, Vice Chancellor for Research at UCLA, former past AMS president, and contributor to this APLU report, for bringing it to my attention.

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