Universities are usually expected to have all the answers – they are full of clever people after all. But sometimes, they need some help to figure out specific problems. Simon Linacre attended a conference recently where the questions being asked of higher education are no less than solving the problems of climate change, poverty, clean water supply and over a dozen more similar issues. How can academic institutions respond?
Most people will be aware of the United Nations and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which they adopted to solve 17 of the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Solving the climate change crisis by that date has perhaps attracted the most attention, but all of the goals present significant challenges to global society.
Universities are very much at the heart of this debate, and there seems to be an expectation that because of the position they have in facilitating research, they will unlock the key to solving these major problems. And so far they seem to have taken up the challenge with some gusto, with new research centers and funding opportunities appearing all the time for those academics aiming to contribute to these global targets in some way. What seems to be missing, however, is that many academics don’t seem to have received the memo on what they should be researching.
Following several conversations at conferences and with senior management at a number of universities, the two themes that are repeated when it comes to existing research programs is that there is a problem with both ‘culture and capabilities’. By culture, university hierarchies report that their faculty members are still as curious and keen to do research as ever, but they are not as interested when they are told to focus their energies on certain topics. And when they do, they lack the motivation or incentives to ensure the outcomes of their research lie in real-world impact. For the academic, impact still means a smallish number with three decimal places – ie, the Impact Factor.
In addition, when it comes to the capability of undertaking the kind of research that is likely to contribute to moving forward the SDGs, academics have not had any training, guidance, or support in what to do. In the UK, for example, where understanding and exhibiting impact is further forward than anywhere else in the world thanks to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), there still seem to be major issues with academics being focused on research that will get published rather than research that will change things. In one conversation, while I was referring to research outcomes as real-world benefits, an academic was talking about the quality of journals in which research would be published. Both are legitimate research outcomes, but publication is still way ahead in terms of cultural expectations. And internal incentives are in reality far behind the overarching aims stated by governments and research organizations.
Perhaps we are being too optimistic to expect the grinding gears of academia to move more smoothly towards a major culture change, and perhaps the small gains that are being made and the work done in the public space by the likes of Greta Thunberg will ultimately be enough to enable real change. But when the stakes are so high and the benefits are so great, maybe our expectations should weigh heavily on academia, as they are probably the people best placed to solve the world’s problems after all.