University Leaders Come Together to Spur Positive Change Through Research

Pew-convened 'Presidents and Chancellors Council' seeks to achieve broad and equitable impacts

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University Leaders Come Together to Spur Positive Change Through Research
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University leaders are coming together, alongside counterparts from the funding community, to strengthen the contributions of the research ecosystem for the public good. The recently created Presidents and Chancellors Council on Public Impact Research, which meets for the first time this June, will partner with key stakeholders to develop and disseminate a roadmap for ensuring that such work reflects a new paradigm for research initiatives.

The council members, who will convene first at a leadership forum hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, will uplift and strengthen efforts to ensure that university research results in positive changes to people’s lives, communities, and society as a whole. Council members represent the diversity of North American research institutions, including public land-grant universities, private campuses, and urban-serving, rural-serving, and minority-serving universities. Over the next two years, Pew will work closely with participating campuses to coordinate the council’s collective actions.

Efforts of the council, which will be led by Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, president of The Pennsylvania State University, will focus on institutionalizing a full spectrum of critically important research approaches, spanning from basic discovery science to public-facing, participatory scholarship. Bendapudi and her fellow council members will work with the Transforming Evidence Funders Network (TEFN) to:

  • Advance innovative and rigorous approaches for evaluating research impact.
  • Strengthen partnerships among universities, nonprofits, governments, and industry.
  • Advance recognition and rewards for a wide spectrum of research approaches.
  • Equip researchers across disciplines with the training and tools to shape positive outcomes not only in the lab and the classroom, but also in policy debates and their local communities.

A research system ripe for change

The research enterprise is at a crossroads. Increasingly, universities and funders are focused on increasing their impact—not only on making new discoveries, but also on seeing research used to affect positive change in society. To do this, they invest in interdisciplinary and participatory research approaches, work to strengthen multisector partnerships with governments, community organizations, and private companies, and interrogate assessment methods to better understand the societal benefits of specific research portfolios. These tools—sometimes collectively referred to as public impact research—show promise for enhancing the relevance, rigor, and applicability of research while strengthening the ties among universities and other sectors that are vital to a democratic society.

Public-facing and transdisciplinary scholarship brings researchers out of siloes and into positions—inside and outside of academia—where they can partner with others to unpack and address complex societal challenges. And that approach can provide inspiration to the next generation of students and researchers, many of whom are deeply motivated to pursue such work alongside more traditional research and learning.

But public impact has historically been undervalued in the funding and assessment of researchers, universities, and research products, which has too often limited the reach of these promising approaches. For example, major university rankings today prioritize total research output and citation metrics rather than impact. This focus on publication metrics is mirrored in promotion and tenure decisions as well. And funders’ requirements often skew toward more easily quantified deliverables, including publications, rather than assessing how knowledge is mobilized in society.

Such incentives can adversely affect the recognition and retention of scholars conducting certain kinds of public impact work. That’s especially true for scholars from marginalized backgrounds who conduct research in partnership with communities or policymakers because the disincentives can compound existing inequities in promotion and financial support.

Society’s challenges are too complex for the research system’s contributions to be limited by narrow conceptions of excellence. There is an urgent need for a more diverse, transdisciplinary research toolbox that includes robust discovery science alongside use-inspired, community-engaged, policy-relevant, and equity-centered research. To meet this need, universities, funders, and key partners—for example, publishers and disciplinary societies—must broaden the incentive and reward structures, such as tenure, promotion, and funding priorities, that inform researchers’ decisions and shape academic culture.

Funders and universities can act together

Increasingly, institutional change efforts at universities are strengthening financial and staffing infrastructure, building capacity through sustained institutional support, and broadening incentives to support public impact research. That can include reforming promotion and tenure criteria and establishing new recognition and reward programs for this important work.

Participants in the council have led such efforts on their campuses, pursuing innovative approaches to achieving broad and equitable impact for research. By working across diverse institutions, they can assess progress, elevate promising approaches, and establish benchmarks to help the research enterprise collectively improve its contributions to addressing complex societal problems.

Funders also play an essential role in spurring widespread change. Within TEFN, funders have backed institutional change efforts and piloted new grant solicitation, review, and assessment practices to support research that meets real-world needs. For example, long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and school districts have helped to improve local youth outcomes. TEFN participants also funded a comprehensive scan of university-based and cross-campus initiatives to broaden promotion and tenure systems.

This scan attests to the critical role of university leaders in setting their institutions’ direction and shaping research culture. By working alongside TEFN, the Presidents and Chancellors Council will be positioned for essential funder-university dialogue intended to help participants shape coordinated actions to increase investment in public impact research. By acting together, the council and TEFN aim to shape a more dynamic, inclusive research system that helps address society’s most complex challenges.

To share ideas or contributions for the council, please contact Benjamin Olneck-Brown.

Benjamin Olneck-Brown works with The Pew Charitable Trusts' evidence project.

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