Evaluating the Value and Impact of University Research – Part 2


Evaluating the Value and Impact of University Research – Part 2

February 9, 2017

Does university research matter?

In other blog posts I have argued that the impact of research is important for national, state, and local economies, and that it is a vital source of new knowledge as we confront the challenges of our day. But how do we know if that new knowledge actually does anything? In my previous post I discussed why this impact (if research actually does anything) is hard to measure apart from things like research expenditures, new patents, publication counts, and the like, and I argued that seeing universities as anchor institutions can be one way to begin appreciating the broader, “behind-the-scenes” benefits. The topic that I want to take up in this post is how we can effectively support and encourage research and inquiry that may have less obvious (but ultimately no less important) benefits for a university’s home and the other communities it serves. This question touches on two related and recent discussions in higher education:

  1. Whether new and innovative work that has the potential to solve grand challenges is actually getting done, or if faculty creativity and innovation is, as some have argued, constrained by pressures to “publish or perish.”
  2. Whether new research is translated into tangible benefits, or if, as some have worried, it simply sits in dusty libraries and online databases to be read only by a small cadre of technical experts. 

With each of these areas of concern, I am unconvinced that things are as bad as they sometimes seem (see, for instance, the UA’s OSIRIS-REx mission and many other groundbreaking and lifesaving projects UA faculty are conducting). Yet, the discussions do pose important questions that universities need to address. Two promising strategies to address these two areas of concern are 1) support for individual faculty members that mitigate some of the risk of innovative research and 2) partnerships that expand the reach and extend the impact of research application and translation.

1) Encouraging faculty to take on new challenges: combatting (apparent) risk aversion

One of the reasons that proxy measurements can have outsized influence is that they are frequently the means by which faculty careers are measured. As I argued in the last post, such measurements are not inherently faulty. However, as several recent commenters have argued, the focus on rankings and expenditures (and other proxy measurements) have the potential to create a chilling effect on the creativity and innovativeness of university research because promotion and tenure decisions often rely on these measurements for the sake of objectivity. As a result, the argument goes, scientific and other breakthroughs are beginning to stagnate. While I do not agree entirely with the premise that universities are doing less ambitious research, this is a challenge that universities have to continually manage. I see two contributing factors.

First, discussed at length in Roberta Ness’ The Creativity Crisis: Reinventing Science to Unleash Possibility, and Paul Voosen’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “For Researchers, Risk is a Vanishing Luxury,” is the idea is that oftentimes because researchers must work within the pressures of publications, patents, grants, and tenure—those proxy measurements we herald as representations of success—they are unwilling to pursue new or risky hypotheses or methods of inquiry if the outcome is uncertain or the work unlikely to be funded.

Second, these pressures can influence the culture of the academy. In their article “Toward Tenure: Developing a Relational View,” Ralph T. Mason, Catherine Casey, and Paul Betts argue that power differentials among faculty members can change what junior faculty will tackle. For instance, they may hold off on more ambitious projects that could be seen to challenge senior faculty members’ approaches or other preferences because those same senior faculty members will vote on tenure and promotion decisions. The authors argue that these pressures can be alleviated (if not dispersed completely) through the collegial relationships that define the academy. While these relationships are absolutely crucial for the impact of university research and teaching, they may not be enough on their own to keep the perception of risk from having a negative impact on the kind of research that junior faculty members conduct. At the same time, the history of tenure and academic freedom in part illustrates why this kind of normalization is necessary – it helps to define the areas of scholarly and scientific expertise in which faculty are professional experts, and it is work defined by self-regulating communities of scholars that is protected by academic freedom. The key is balance. 

To the extent that scientists and researchers are unwilling to approach risky ventures, then there is a very real danger that, as Ness suggests, original solutions to the world’s greatest challenges will never be found. Ness and Voosen both contend that major problems—like emerging infections, water scarcity, cancer, and obesity, all remain unsolved because all the outside pressures inhibit creativity and scientific research. While creativity is vital, and there is always more we can do, it seems hubristic to think that if only we were more open to risk, these historic and pervasive challenges would have been solved already.

So, in practical terms, how do we encourage early-career faculty (and their more experienced peers) to strike a balance?

Finding research funding may seem like a circus, but faculty have more on their plate than striking a pose. The UA’s Research Development Services helps researchers focus on what matters most.

One promising strategy the University of Arizona and some of our peers have pursued is to provide support services for faculty as they begin new research endeavors. The office of Research Development Services (RDS), part of the division of Research, Discovery, and Innovation, provides informational resources and works with faculty and other researchers as they identify possible funding and bring together teams. For instance, RDS’s UA Experts website helps faculty members find colleagues, both on campus and off, to fill out their research teams and ensure the best chance of success in attracting and then using research funding (it is also a useful resource for community members who may want to partner with UA experts).

Equally important is the work that RDS does to help faculty members craft research proposals. Members of its team of research development associates each specialize in particular areas of research and scholarship and work with faculty members to facilitate the development and preparation of new funding proposals. In particular, they target the kind of research projects that Ness and Voosen describe as both risky and necessary: large, complex projects with ambitious goals driven by interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration. While the UA has long had a strong culture of interdisciplinarity, the team building and proposal development services provided by RDS are important tools for sustaining that culture with institutional support while also encouraging faculty members to take on complex challenges.

Finally, another important tool at the UA is institutional funding that serves as a bridge from a new idea to an ongoing research project or robust proposal more likely to attract long-term funding. The UA’s Research Advancement Grants are intended to “provide a pathway to success for interdisciplinary research,” including initial seed grants for early-career faculty to develop major grant proposals, grants to build large interdisciplinary teams to pursue very large federal funding, and facility and equipment support. The potential impact of these programs is significant, from allowing senior faculty to develop new and innovative research initiatives with campus colleagues to encouraging early-career faculty to pursue research and scholarship that might otherwise seem out of reach. 

2) Encouraging novel applications to solve grand challenges: partnering to expand reach and impact

In addition to the contention that today’s researchers and scholars are risk-averse, there is also a frequent claim that university research does not reach the people it can most benefit. Paul Basken’s series of articles published in early 2016, “Research and the Real World,” focused on the challenges of finding meaningful outlets for research that is not readily commercialized or marketable. His point is not that the answer cannot be found, or even that no one is looking into these problems, but that if the end results of those solutions are not easily commercialized then there are fewer clear pathways for potentially helpful or even life-saving research to reach the public. As a result, society’s “greatest threats” remain unsolved. Ness makes a similar point, stating that science is not neglecting large-scale or otherwise critical problems, but that our approaches to addressing them are often “uninspired.”

As with the question of whether individual faculty members are taking on “risky” research, I do not agree with the assertion that grand challenges are not being addressed because of a lack of creativity or effort, or because commercialization is distracting us from other forms of translational work. Only a zero-sum competition would make this true, and universities like the UA are large enough and robust enough to support many different forms of research, inquiry, and their application. The challenge in all cases is how to fund and encourage this work in a sustainable way. Given this, two roadblocks seem worth addressing:

First, faculty members are not always trained or rewarded for translational work.  With the perception of razor-thin margins for promotion and tenure that I discussed above, avoiding commercialization and other forms of translation is understandable if it is seen as a distraction from the other activities that usually determine success in an academic research and teaching career. In response—and as I have discussed on previous blog posts—the UA has prioritized commercialization efforts through Tech Launch Arizona and an inclusive view of scholarship. This encourages important outcomes: in addition to creating the possibility for new revenue for the university, commercialization moves new ideas and technologies into the hand of the public, benefitting the most people as quickly as possible. Continued investment and cross-unit collaboration is vital, and the UA’s efforts to build an innovation ecosystem are finding important successes as I have discussed on other blog posts.

Second, commercialization does perhaps gain the most attention because it creates the most obvious return on investment in the sense that literal returns come back to the university through patents, licenses, and other intellectual property tools. Thus, a second potential roadblock is sustainable funding for other forms of translational work for which the returns on investment are not literal dollars but other less obvious but still tangible benefits for the sponsoring institution or its community.  

The work of the Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA), which I discussed in my last post, is one very strong example of university research and inquiry creating this kind of positive impact through non-commercial translation, but it is hard to replicate because it requires long term engagement and exchange that can be difficult to sustain in a climate of tenuous funding for higher education. Indeed, part of what makes the SFA such a good example of university-community partnership is its unique history. Still, partnership is the key. The UA and other land-grant universities in the U.S. have a distinct culture of partnership and research translation for the explicit benefit of their home states. Building on this history is crucial if we are to effectively address the challenges of our day. A few examples will help to illustrate what I mean.

  • Land-grant partnerships: One example from the UA illustrates the importance not only of institutional partnership, but of the individual relationships on which it is built. George Ruyle, Extension Specialist and Professor of Range Management in the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, is an expert in conservation ranching for sustainable rangeland livestock production. [Link to article here if it’s posted in time]. He works closely with Arizona ranchers to navigate environmental law and regulations, collect and analyze data to inform land management, and, in doing so, ensure the continued health of the ecosystems that sustain Arizona’s ranching industry. This work depends on Ruyle’s lifelong interest in and dedication to farming, ranching, and land stewardship, all of which come from his love for agriculture and ranching and the people whose lives are defined by it.  

Like the SFA’s partnership with Tucson and Southern Arizona’s folklife community, the UA’s Cooperative Extension and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have deep roots in Arizona, and their faculty and extension specialists have longstanding ties to the state’s agricultural, ranching, and related industries. These ties have been crucial in the UA’s efforts to secure and maintain state funding for Cooperative Extension over the past several years. The first step in other areas is to identify or build similar relationships.

  • External funding for translation and application: Two other recent successes from the UA demonstrate the potential benefits of the land-grant context even when the formal structure of Cooperative Extension (or its funding model) does not apply. Both are apps that were created in order to directly and easily aid and inform as many people as possible by sharing the insights derived from UA research. The Ag Water app—a result of a collaboration with UC Davis and other research partners—makes it easier to determine whether a water source is safe from a public health standpoint to use on produce, and Kidenga, an app for reporting symptoms of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses, helps quantify populations of mosquitos that carry the viruses to provide early warning of outbreaks. The Ag Water app was supported by the Center for Produce Safety, and Kidenga was supported by the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Institutional support for transdisciplinary teams and centers: Implementation of the UA’s Never Settle strategic plan has included the establishment of several new research centers on campus, including the Defense and Security Research Institute, which houses the Space Object Behavioral Sciences initiative, an important application of UA research expertise in space sciences, big data science and analytics, law and policy relative to space, and several other fields. Other recent examples include:
  • The office of Research, Discovery, and Innovation recently convened a group of researchers from across the world to talk about the problem of how the world will feed 8.5 billion people by 2030. This area of inquiry will involve experts in food, energy, and water, all areas of UA leadership.
  • The Transportation Research Institute was established in 2016 to study “the challenges of an ever-evolving transportation ecosystem.” The recently received funding to study how we can make smarter, safer roads in Arizona. This includes a cargo truck heavy corridor that runs through Arizona from Long Beach, California.
  • The UA’s Institute for Energy Solutions “is a platform for energy experts” at the University to work with external partners in a variety of sectors to address energy needs, particularly related to the integration and expansion of renewable energy sources and the intersection of energy with other sustainability issues. One exciting application is work with the Navajo Nation to find a solution for fresh, clean drinking water through a solar, desalination project.

While ongoing challenges to success remain we must confront them. I do not believe—nor have I seen compelling evidence—that university research is on a historic downslope. The work of administrators and other leaders is to predict and head off possible roadblocks, and in this task, discussions of risk are helpful, but they cannot define our view of the future of higher education and its research mission. Taking the insights generated by these discussions and using them to develop pragmatic solutions will help sustain the incredibly vital impact of both basic and translational research. I hope that in this post and the one that preceded it I have provided some useful ways for universities and their faculty to approach these questions.