II. Learning and Success

Connecting the University to Societies and Economies through Transdisciplinary Approaches

Dr. Irem Y. Tumer; Dr. Julie M. Risien; and Dr. Roberta L. Marinelli

In this essay, we explore the growing importance of transdisciplinary research in the research enterprise, including pathways to impact, the real and perceived barriers to achieving impact, and the role and responsibility of higher education research leadership in helping address and remove these barriers.

Today’s R1 public universities must be committed to investing in areas of scholarly excellence and emergent expertise, and facilitating a cultural transformation that leverages faculty research talent to its fullest extent, brings knowledge to action, and engages students in the process. They must ensure pathways to impact are embedded in all aspects of discovery and learning, with the overarching goal to support, enable, and value innovation. Increasingly, complex research programs are addressing urgent questions of global consequence, such as climate change adaptation, health and welfare of rural communities and marginalized groups, and the development and application of trustworthy artificial intelligence. Topics that include the human dimension are increasingly prevalent and require transdisciplinary approaches that obscure the borders of “traditional” science, as they are simultaneously informed by foundational research, human behaviors, and communities and economies.

Supporting such complex research projects requires significant expansion of research office capabilities and strong partnerships among university senior leadership. It is imperative that institutions create a supportive environment—research development, faculty participation, promotion and tenure criteria—that enables and values transdisciplinary approaches and elevates universities as important partners that serve society and the nation broadly. Solving “wicked problems” requires convergent approaches, an expansive view of impact, a creative evaluation of potential, innovative paths to action, and diverse teams of faculty, students, and entrepreneurs to capture perspectives and opportunity.

The role of research leadership at research active universities has undergone a significant transformation in recent years. In the past a research office primarily consisted of supporting the mechanics of research funding (budget preparation, proposal submission, post award) and ensuring compliance. But as the nature of the research enterprise has expanded to include large and complex transdisciplinary collaborations, major research infrastructure, potential commercial interests, and growing emphasis on local and global impact, the role of the research office has also grown.

For example, as funding agencies focus on large transformative research advances, the successful research office must cultivate collaborative programs, ensure that project execution plans are robust, enable seamless interactions with partner institutions, and submit a growing number of documents for compliance. Upon receiving an award, the research office must then oversee the execution and operation of the full range of awards, from single investigator efforts to centers of excellence to research facility development, with the attendant organizational structures necessary to deliver on the research promise. Such efforts require the research office to find new ways to promote the intellectual growth of the principal investigators, identify and manage new stakeholders both within and outside the university, while also marshaling resources to enable such projects.

With increasing pressures on academic institutions to bring knowledge-to-action, research offices are increasingly required to accelerate the translation of scientific knowledge and discovery into impact. To that end, they play a critical role in bridging the gap between curiosity-driven discovery and actions with measurable outcomes that include societal benefit. These outcomes can be in the form of practical devices, systems, policies, services, social interventions, and other impacts that improve communities, stimulate economic growth, and foster innovation.

Finally, research offices are critical to enabling public engagement and outreach. They help bridge the gap between research and society by communicating research findings broadly and engaging with stakeholders to ensure that research is relevant, addressing real-world problems and contributing to social and economic growth.

The Modern University vs. Traditional Academic Culture

As research offices adapt to changing national needs and societal imperatives, the university must adapt its traditional culture and reward system with the aspirations of modern and ambitious faculty, and expansive thought leaders who are pushing the boundaries of disciplines and accomplishment. In recognition of this need, an ongoing movement, supported by NSF and led by Oregon State University, is reexamining the norms surrounding Promotion and Tenure, to include Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PTIE). Indeed, interviews of faculty who seek to expand research horizons have revealed widespread frustration with barriers to development of more diverse research portfolios with broad impact beyond traditional metrics such as research awards and publications. Faculty identify the following impediments: (1) Pressure to satisfy traditional metrics associated with tenure and promotion (grants, publications); (2) increased emphasis on student mentoring and contact; (3) absence of training in how to bring ideas to the market or the public commons, as well as absence of mentors; and (4) inability to access capital that might support the pathway from research to relevance. Traditional academic cultures and organizations may not possess a research ecosystem and promotional ladder that supports, encourages, and rewards this type of high impact research, and as a result, faculty are hesitant to take risks. Accordingly, graduate student education has remained adherent to similar lines of traditional academic values—despite the documented desire of students to conduct research with greater societal relevance and make a difference (see Keeler 2022).

Although universities are notoriously slow to change, some are taking steps to revise promotion and tenure to include innovation, entrepreneurship, and broad societal impact. These steps include interactions with faculty unions and faculty governance bodies, as well as senior administration, and can take several years to implement. Unfortunately, this time frame often exceeds the rapid responses needed by funding agencies and businesses that seek academic expertise for problem-solving. In this case, a university that is positioned to support and reward innovation will have an advantage over institutions that are slower to adapt.

Finally, universities may unwittingly impede collaboration through policies that govern allocation of resources, including indirect costs, by disciplinary units. Pathways for development of interdisciplinary centers must be intentionally developed and resourced independently. That is, support of transdisciplinary work requires creative funding strategies that span university offices, from academic units to research offices, to extension, outreach, and engagement.

In the next section, we discuss the growing importance and urgency of enabling transdisciplinary research as part of the research office’s roles and responsibilities at research universities. We start with (1) the growing prevalence of research solicitations that involve large transdisciplinary teams, and note (2) the increasing emphasis of innovation and entrepreneurship that connects universities to economies, as well as (3) the need for connecting research output to rapidly changing communities, societies, and landscapes. We then discuss challenges that research offices must overcome to enable these transformations.

Support for Transdisciplinary Research

The Rise of Transdisciplinary Research

The twenty-first-century research enterprise must navigate simultaneous paradigm shifts to meet the needs of a fast-changing society and environment. Historical norms of how research is conducted, assessed, and connected to societal needs have created groundbreaking contributions in diverse fields of inquiry. However, as agencies prioritize funding larger awards to address critical, cross-cutting problems with diverse social implications, including workforce development, responsible resource stewardship, and community engagement (e.g., semiconductors, clean energy, critical minerals, climate intervention), the complexity of research projects has grown. Accordingly, research offices must enable and encourage interdisciplinarity and cross-sector collaborations to meet this challenge.

A significant paradigm shift involves transdisciplinary research that invites stakeholders as partners in the formulation and conduct of research projects. Sometimes referred to as “convergent” or “participatory” research, this transdisciplinary approach can be a disruption to the research enterprise. It extends the research opportunity outside the sphere of academia and provides a framework to use rigorous tools of knowledge production, while also progressing how we understand knowledge as a shared resource with expertise coming from many sectors, partnerships as reciprocal, and societal impacts as imperative to research investments.

When stakeholders such as private industry, communities of place or affinity, advocacy groups, and governments are embedded in the research process, the outcome is more likely to be actionable and relevant. As a result, the research process is transformed, and the result more likely “shovel ready” with respect to implementation and impact. This approach challenges assumptions built into our concept of research as curiosity → discovery → publication → translation → impact. It invites us to reenvision research as a connected part of the recursive and inclusive process of solving societal problems, while also providing an informed and improved framework for policy development and implementation.

Research offices can help manage the inherent complexity of transdisciplinary collaborations by creating developmental “runways” that facilitate and support teams early in their collaborative process and prior to sending off proposals for extramural funding. These runways can make time for guided and intentional activities that build communication skills and create common goals and provide productive pathways for the research to progress.

Examples of activities and support for transdisciplinary teams include professional training, developmental cohorts, team coaching, fellowships, seed-funding programs, facilitated collaborative design processes, or unique combinations of these. Such activities create the opportunity for partners to develop a shared understanding of the problem to be solved, shared vision of how they will pursue solutions collaboratively, practices for inclusive and transparent communication, clarity about different ways of knowing, and critical expertise of a diverse group that all bring different strengths to their joint endeavor. In addition, as they work through the mechanics and philosophy of the collaborative process, teams can explore how resources and credit will be shared and how new research themes can emerge. In essence, an early phase “runway” sets a productive atmosphere for collaborative success. It creates a set of project artifacts that support onboarding of new partners and team members while providing evidence of successful collaborative practices as solid foundation for future work.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship

In alignment with supporting transdisciplinary research, university innovation and entrepreneurship offices (sometimes labeled technology transfer or industry relations offices) also play an important role in fostering collaborative research between universities, industry, and government agencies. Technology transfer (defined as the process of transferring innovative technologies, knowledge, and intellectual property from academic institutions to external entities, such as industry, startups, or government agencies) is the most standard, best-understood approach to accelerate the translation of academic research into practical real-world applications. This approach is evolving as it employs the strategies of engagement to cultivate more reciprocal relationships where partners collaborate, bringing their unique strengths together to respond to societal and economic needs.

The research office of an R1 university plays an active role in facilitating and supporting innovation and entrepreneurship through the identification of research outcomes with commercial potential; the protection of the intellectual property (patents, copyrights, and trademarks); the development and execution of commercialization strategies; the negotiation of licensing agreements that allow external organizations to access and utilize university-owned technologies; and the active support of researchers interested in entrepreneurship and startup creation. Each step benefits from interaction with industry stakeholders, so a critical role the research offices must play is to establish and nurture the relationships with corporations, startups, and investors.

Extension and Engagement

Last, offices or divisions of engagement (sometimes extension, community relations, or outreach and engagement offices) foster engaged efforts to establish and attain educational and community goals and play an expert role in translating research into societal impact. Traditionally, these offices provide outreach, education, and technical assistance to individuals, communities, and organizations. Increasingly, these units actively invite communities to be partners in research and educational processes to ensure that the benefits of research are accessible and applicable in practical settings. They build partnerships and work closely with the communities to identify and understand local needs and then co-develop solutions-oriented research that generates actionable knowledge. For example, challenges posed by climate change and natural hazards have increased co-production of knowledge, as communities provide critical data and voice concerns that in turn, inform mitigation and resilience strategies. With knowledge in hand, engagement offices can play a critical role in informing policy development at the local, state, and national levels. By providing evidence-based solutions, they help shape policies that benefit the community and promote sustainable development.

Research Leadership’s Role in Paving the Road to Impact

Development and Incentives for Transdisciplinary Research

As discussed above, conducting transdisciplinary research presents new challenges and opportunities, and research offices must play a crucial role as advocates, enablers, and integrators.

An important first step for research offices is to engage university leadership and organize an integrated mind-set that recognizes the interdependencies of research, engagement, learning, and translation. Simultaneously, university leadership must encourage and incentivize academic faculty to work outside of their comfort zones. Once the landscape is set, research offices can encourage and facilitate collaborations that straddle the boundaries of academic disciplines and the organizational divisions, and serve as brokers to connect the university to external stakeholders. The growing ranks of non-tenure-track academic professionals—e.g., project managers, coordinators, professional researchers, and practitioners involved in research translation, extension, and engagement— also need to be positioned and advanced for their successes as credible brokers that build relationships and enable collaborations across sectors and disciplines.

Within the research office, new skills and expertise that are central to transdisciplinary research frameworks must be established. First, research offices should consider providing professional development and research advancement opportunities for researchers who seek to lead or participate in such complex solutions-oriented projects. Second, research offices need to manage—and ease—the bureaucratic and relational complexities of interdisciplinary, multi-institutional and multisector research projects. Such projects often involve multiple external partners, each with a different amount of influence and access to research infrastructure, and each with its own goals, timelines, priorities, and financial and incentives systems. Research offices can help manage this complexity by creating a collaborative landscape that facilitates and supports transdisciplinary teams through proposal development, research execution, and award completion.

Recognition of Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Impact

As societal challenges become more complex, the research enterprise responds by employing approaches to elevate its contributions to solutions and live up to the promise of twenty-first-century institutions. Transdisciplinary is one key approach and in many cases, has embedded within it many nontraditional research activities, including community engagement, open science, team science, and inclusive practices. Innovation and entrepreneurship are critically important, and they are a growing part of the research enterprise. All of these new approaches enable new, often more accessible, forms of scholarship and innovation that may be undervalued, overlooked, or even serve as a hindrance to professional advancement. The systems of reward and advancement in universities, especially how they assess research activities, innovation, and entrepreneurship, must evolve as the demands on the research enterprise have.

To that end, promotion and tenure reforms are needed to attract and retain diverse talent who embrace less traditional forms of scholarship and also drive innovation. The academy is showing signs of softening to the idea as well. For example, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has hosted convenings and commissioned several papers on the topic (see list of references) and the NSF-funded Promotion & Tenure Innovation & Entrepreneurship discussed previously has started a national movement to holistically consider the rewards and incentives for promotion and tenure, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is host to an initiative to modernize scholarship and advance reward and recognition for research that improves lives and society. Research offices have a leadership role and responsibility to advocate for enabling the recognition of impact and the many different research activities that contribute to it.

Establishing a Strong Research Superstructure and Infrastructure

Last, the role of the research leadership as enablers of transdisciplinary research with lasting and meaningful impact cannot be accomplished without a modern and proactive administrative superstructure and state-of-the-art physical research infrastructure.

Traditional grants and awards administration is built on a model exemplified by typical NSF grants and one-off industry-funded research projects. Over the last five to ten years, many universities have seen an increase in the success of faculty in attracting funding and leading more complex proposals. However, this growth comes with staffing and workload challenges, resulting in inadequate support for needed services.

To significantly increase research and its impact, universities must develop a robust superstructure: the talent, capability, and support of long-term, multi-unit administrative teams to help researchers build competitive proposals and to support successful implementation of these complex projects. This can involve complex funding scenarios, innovative capital construction needs, sophisticated project management teams, multilateral agreements, nonstandard insurance and risk management issues, complex legal and compliance issues, sophisticated financial reporting, audits, and other complexities. With appropriate resources, the university will be able to provide critical support for the administration of strategic research awards that are key to propelling their reputation and impact going forward.

Finally, there is a growing emphasis on physical infrastructure. As technology and innovation have grown, so have the number and variety of state-of-the-art facilities and instruments needed to support research excellence. Increasingly, universities are serving as centers that support the national research enterprise, serving agencies and the academic community writ large. Ongoing operations and maintenance expenditures have assumed a higher priority in both federal and university research budgets, raising the question of how to invest strategically to support research most efficiently. The research office must balance investments among ideas-driven projects versus the infrastructure that supports them.

Summary

Research-intensive universities play critical roles in the creation and translation of knowledge. Increasingly, they are partners with industry, governments, and communities in solving complex problems at the intersection of foundational knowledge and societal need. Transdisciplinary research is a rapidly expanding component of the research office portfolio, crossing traditional academic boundaries, creating new scholarly outcomes, and including stakeholders in the process. Research offices must partner with university senior leaders to provide holistic support for faculty to assume complex transdisciplinary projects, and to create a reward system for innovation, entrepreneurship, and societal impact.

References

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Connecting the University to Societies and Economies through Transdisciplinary Approaches Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Irem Y. Tumer; Dr. Julie M. Risien; and Dr. Roberta L. Marinelli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.