Can research be made to align with the societal needs?

I am linking to another brilliant article on how science should serve the societal needs.

But as we progressed along our conventional academic pathways, we experienced a strong sense of cognitive dissonance: despite the production of more and better science, it often fell dramatically short of our hope to solve real-world problems and create a brighter future. Although we met other scientists who felt the same way, none of us knew how to chart a more productive path for doing science that makes a difference. 

Highlights:

  • We were trained to do good science: to do our best to develop compelling research questions, to be unbiased about our data, skeptical about our conclusions, and open to criticism from our peers.
  • But as we progressed along our conventional academic pathways, we experienced a strong sense of cognitive dissonance: despite the production of more and better science, it often fell dramatically short of our hope to solve real-world problems and create a brighter future.
  • We recognized in the University of Maine (UMaine), our small land-grant university in a state that is large in area but small in population, a potential “model system” to implement and evaluate faculty-led strategies for aligning research with societal needs.
  • Although Maine faces many important challenges that could benefit from strategically aligned research, we focused on the challenges of sustainable economic and community development within the state.
  • Given the multifaceted and interconnected nature of these challenges, we sought to learn whether interdisciplinary research teams could help identify causes and consequences of sustainability problems and develop and evaluate potential solutions.
  • Our alignment strategy would require the development of strong collaborations with diverse stakeholders from the public and private sectors, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society, because of their many roles in identifying problems and developing solutions.
  • Fortunately, Maine is characterized by dense social networks where university faculty often have close relationships with important partners.
  • Inspired in part by Justice Lewis Brandeis’s concept of states as laboratories of democracy, we used Maine as a laboratory for sustainability, seeking solutions to real-world problems locally and also identifying strategies by which universities anywhere can become more valued partners to society.
  • Given the varied disciplinary cultures and motivations—both personal and professional—of the faculty we sought to include, it was important to develop a shared vision for the work we wanted to do.
  • During our informal strategic planning process, we invited ideas from all corners about ways to grow our research capacity, engage with stakeholders, and develop solutions to problems they faced.
  • Our desire to develop a faculty-led strategy derived in large part from the hope that this solutions-focused research ethos would become self-sustaining once faculty gained experience with its intellectual and personal rewards.
  • Productive collaborations must be built between the university and diverse stakeholders to develop a sufficient understanding of sustainability problems and viable strategies for solving them.
  • At an early meeting exploring faculty interest in an initiative of this type, some faculty in the natural sciences, who were among UMaine’s most accomplished researchers, expressed concern and frustration about the lack of real-world impact of their research.
  • They wanted to understand why their past efforts fell short and how we could develop alternative strategies for increasing the chances that their research would inform policies and practices.
  • Social sciences faculty, in contrast, understood the important lessons that fields such as economics, psychology, and political science could provide for changing individual and institutional behaviors, yet we quickly learned that some felt they were left on the sidelines or asked to play only token roles during the development of new research initiatives.
  • In our efforts to develop a systems model that could guide our work, we emerged with two fundamental commitments that have shaped our approach: 1) In addition to the traditional focus on the biophysical components underpinning a problem, a much greater emphasis is needed on the human dimensions, including the complex interactions between society and nature; and 2) productive collaborations must be built between the university and diverse s