Why universities are great places to do policy relevant science

Last month I described all the ways that university researchers (especially tenure track faculty) need to stretch and do things differently if they want to do policy-relevant science (here). It was a pretty long and probably to many a pretty daunting list.

Here I want to come at this from the opposite angle and examine why a university is a great place to do policy relevant science.  Between the two posts you effectively have a list of the weaknesses (last post) and strengths (this post) of being homed in a university while trying to do policy relevant science. What follows is five reasons universities are GREAT places to do policy-relevant science.

  1. Universities already are doing policy relevant science. First is important to recognize the range of researchers in a university on the basic-applied spectrum. In the United States universities typically contain at least two departments doing ecology. One is allied with biology and other basic sciences, targeting basic research and one is allied with agriculture and typically covers (in one or multiple departments) wildlife, fisheries and forestry. Second, all land grant universities (usually the largest public university in each state) contain extension agents. This is explicitly an outreach and interface function occupied by people holding PhDs in the scientific subjects (e.g. ecology). There are also many cross-appointments with the federal government in what are called cooperative units – these people are typically full-time employees of the US Geological Survey (which includes all wildlands biology research thanks to Al Gore), US Department of Agriculture or other agencies but who are officed on campus, often intermingled with tenure-track faculty doing research, serving on student committees etc. I have less experience with other countries, but the general model carries over. In Canada I know that there is a special grant from the basic science agency (NSERC) that targets industrial and goverment partners. I was part of one grant partnered with timber companies and another grant partnered with NGOs and Government agencies. I believe Stats Canada and Environment Canada have some facilities intentionally co-located with universities as well. In Australia I know that CSIRO contains research, often is in close proximity to universities, and has some people with joint appointments. This also carries into other fields (public health, engineering, geology, hydrology, meteorology, etc). So universities are great places to do policy-relevant research because they already contain the entire spectrum! (and if you’re a basic researcher this is relevant to you because odds are you just have to walk down the hall or across the street to find people with experience and skills and contacts and networks that are necessary for doing policy relevant science).
  2. Universities have staying power. When dealing with so called wicked problems that are complex, having conflicting interests and in general are going to take decades if ever to solve, then having an institution with the staying power to still be there in a couple of decades is important. Among the other players, governments of course stay around forever, but NGOs, business, and especially citizen coalitions all come and go (or change priorities and attentions) on much shorter time scales. There is an inherent credibility that comes from everybody knowing you will still be here and still have people working on this problem 10 or 20 years from now.
  3. Universities are largely seen as honest. In a post-modern world where everybody is perceived as having an agenda, this is no small thing. Universities are certainly perceived as having an agenda of getting more research dollars. And certain segments of society may perceive universities as elite or aloof. But when push comes to shove, most people trust that when a researcher from a university gets up and says “I’ll stake my reputation that this is true” they are being honest. People from industry and  NGOs (which in some ways is a nice word for a lobbying organization) don’t get the same respect (as extreme cases think of researchers working for cigarette companies or pharmaceutical companies). Roger Pielke Jr. talks about this role in his book on The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and PoliticsCash in 2002 emphasizes the need for policy-relevant research to be three things: salient, credible and legitimate.  The first (salient=relevant) is mostly about listening to stakeholders and solving the problems they care about (as I addressed in my first post). But credible is about whether information was arrived at in a scientific and technically correct fashion. Legitimacy is whether the process was fair and unbiased. University researchers are especially well-positioned to deliver on these last two.

These are the three main reasons I perceive universities as good places to do policy-relevant research. You will note that none of these three reasons tie directly to the individual researcher, but rather accrue to the university institution as a whole. But  obviously this benefits individual researchers in the institution.

David Cash, in the 2006 paper I cited in my last post on this topic, makes similar arguments, suggests that the key to policy-relevant science is to span boundaries by four functions (I will do a whole post on the idea of boundary spanning so I don’t want to get hung up on it here). It will quickly strike the reader that all four of these functions are well suited to the university. The four boundary spanning functions leading to policy relevance are:

  1. Convening – the ability to call a meeting and get the right kind of people to show up is important. Universities have this power. People with decision making power and people coming from different sides of an issue are often likely to accept an invitation to attend a meeting at a university. There is a prestige in being asked to give your ideas to the university and a sense that you will be treated fairly.
  2. Translation – taking highly technical material and simplifying it down is something universities can but often do not do well. But universities are replete with communications departments, journalism departments, multi-media groups, extension agents etc. If universities fail to fulfill this role, it is from lack of effort.
  3. Collaboration – Universities are often sought after as colalborators because they have staying power and resources for research. As research functions get downsized in business and government, increasingly universities are the only place left with research capacity. When you combine this with the longevity of universities and the general openness to ideas, universities can make great collaborators when people interested in doing policy-relevant science can be found within the perceived ivory walls.
  4. Mediation – mediation requires a perception of neutrality and prioritizing truth over accuracy. Universities generally score well on these goals.

After highlighting the strengths of universities, I would be remiss to not briefly highlight some of the challenges to carrying out these roles in universities. I would say the two biggest challenges are walls and incentives. Walls because, like any large institution, conversations and connections often become siloed into departments, the basic researchers don’t talk to the extension agents, and neither group reaches out to groups like communication or journalism for help, and etc.. Incentives because most universities right now primarily (exclusively?) incentivize their tenure-track faculty to publish in high-impact peer-reviewed journals and get large grants. As I argued in my last post, these are not as contradictory to policy-relevant science as often perceived, but if universities want to be known as hot beds of policy-relevant research, they need to start changing the way promotion and tenure committees evaluate faculty. Gray literature reports and stake-holder meetings and K-12 websites need to count too. NSF tries to do this with broader impacts, and most universities are having conversations about interdisciplinarity, but I think it is fair to say that both NSF and university higher-ups have more work to do if they want to see policy-relevant science gushing forth (and again I am not saying they should abandon basic research – but these days both universities and NSF are expressing  a desire for more policy-relevant research). But in the end I don’t think these are insurmountable. Individual researchers are already breaking down these barriers at universities all over the world.

So, in summary, don’t let my last post inspire you to quit your university-based research job! On the whole universities have multiple strengths, in combination I would almost say unique strengths, as an institution to support policy-relevant research. Many of the key roles of convening, translating, collaboration and mediation are ideally suited to universities.

5 thoughts on “Why universities are great places to do policy relevant science

  1. I appreciate both of your posts on policy-relevant science as this is something I’ve been thinking about. I feel like I’m sold on *why* this is important, but I’m still unclear on how to get started. In your previous post you mentioned the importance of personal relationships; I don’t have any connections in government or access to great resources like Maine’s SSI. And, like you, the problems I’m interested in tend to be large in scale and use a macroecological approach rather than experimentation or field work. Perhaps you can comment more on this from the perspective of a macroecologist: how would you suggest that someone get started identifying important questions and connecting with people with whom to co-define these questions? How have you done this yourself, and how has your own research direction changed to address more policy-relevant problems while still satisfying your own interests and skill set?

    Thanks for these posts and keep them coming – I’m very interested to learn more about this from your own experience.

    • Hi Ben,

      A really concrete and practical question. I will probably touch on these topics in a couple forthcoming posts I have planned. But they might also feel abstract.

      In the end, this is more something you just do than can explain (it is not as amenable to statistical or theoretical development as say ecology!).

      I would say you have three options to start making connections:
      1) The low key slow and steady approach. Start attending your local Audobon bird meetings or garden club or …. Make a call to the local office of the Nature Conservancy and let them know you’re interested in helping out on research questions and want to set up a meeting to explore opportunities. Volunteer to give public talks (again possibly call groups that sponsor such talks to volunteer). This will be slow, but this kind of work just is.
      2) The big bang. My core research question is how climate change affects organisms. Working with Jenny Shrum and Christine Lamanna in my lab and several other faculty members, we made a list of the movers and shakers in the subject in Maine (government NGO and industry, conservation but also forestry, infectious disease, etc). And then we invited them to a one day workshop where we brainstormed the most important questions in the field. We then promised to start addressing these questions and to reconvene in 9 months. That’s where we are at now. But this is a classic example of where being at a university helps. Most people didn’t know me but many were former students of some of my colleagues working on the project with me, and just being at the state’s main research university gave a leg up. And then of course we had easy access to meeting facilities and some small funds to pay travel and meals. And although we didn’t use it, there were plenty of people with experience facillitating work shops who would have helped if we needed it. This is faster (but still not fast) and it is certainly more pressure to produce.
      3) Hook in with research groups and people in the university already more connected. Unfortunately in your situation UNC is not the land grant university. But NC State is not far away and I bet folks there in the analog of fish and wildlife and forestry departments have strong connections to the state government as do folks in the extensions offices (which are often spread all over the state). Duke has an environmental science group that has lots of policy work. Of course longer term, a post doc is a good way to add this experience. And I know there are people at UNC who are working to be policy relevant. Sometimes building on these links already in the university can be easiest.

      • Oh – and if that sounds really open ended and without a clear outcome, you’re right. That is part of what is exciting and frightening about this. Putting the relationship building first and trusting something will come out of it is not exactly the officially recommended way to develop a thesis topic for example. Of course with #2 you can be more directive. But to my mind this is inherently sort of open ended and long term in nature.

  2. Pingback: Policy relevant science – life on the boundary | Dynamic Ecology

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