Will academia lead the way?

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.

From Lisbon to Charleston, Cabells has you covered

This week, Cabells is fortunate enough to connect with colleagues and friends, new and old, across the globe in Lisbon, Portugal at the GBSN 2019 Annual Conference, and in Charleston, South Carolina at the annual Charleston Conference. We relish these opportunities to share our experiences and learn from others, and both conference agendas feature industry leaders hosting impactful sessions covering myriad thought-provoking topics. 

At the GBSN conference in Lisbon, Simon Linacre, Cabells Director of International Marketing and Development, is co-leading the workshop, “Research Impact for the Developing World” which explores ideas to make research more impactful and relevant in local contexts. At the heart of the matter is the notion that unless the global business community is more thoughtful and proactive about the development of research models, opportunities for positively impacting business and management in the growth markets of the future will be lost. We know all in attendance will benefit from Simon’s insights and leadership in working through this important topic.

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At the Charleston Conference, a lively and eventful day at the vendor showcase on Tuesday was enjoyed by all and our team was reminded once again how wonderful it is to be a part of the scholarly community. We never take for granted how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to share, learn, and laugh with fellow attendees. 

 

We are always excited to pass along news on the projects we are working on, learn about what we might expect down the road, and consider areas we should focus on going forward. Hearing what is on the collective mind of academia and how we can help move the community forward is what keeps us going. And things are just getting started! With so many important and interesting sessions on the agenda in Charleston, our only regret is that we can’t attend them all!