Imagining the Role of the Research University Anew

Research universities should envision themselves as partnership builders, connecting local communities, government, industry, and others to plan for and respond to the challenges facing society.

The year is 2034, and a magnitude 8.2 earthquake has just hit southern California. The destruction is massive and widespread as the long-feared mega-temblor races 100 miles up the San Andreas Fault from the Mexican border to San Bernardino. Virtually every building suffers significant damage, but thanks to some of the strongest construction codes in the county, less than half become dangerously unstable. Even so, many roads and highways buckle, and dozens or even hundreds of bridges collapse—cutting off many communities from each other. Meanwhile, the shaking blocks the flow of water from numerous reservoirs. An estimated 5,000 people die, and 50,000 are injured in the immediate aftermath, before the first aftershocks unleash further destruction.  

It could have been worse. State and local governments, businesses, and individuals had been preparing for this tragedy for decades. They were joined in the late 2020s by a network of science and engineering hubs from a dozen research universities that had come together specifically to address and plan for the dominant challenges facing society—from the long-running disruptions triggered by climate change to more acute disasters such as earthquakes and pandemics.

Because engineers had anticipated that normal communications networks would utterly fail in a mega-earthquake, for example, researchers at California State University, Stanford University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology had spent several years developing transponders that could be rapidly deployed via balloons lofted over stricken neighborhoods, allowing first responders to communicate with each other and the outside world.

Communication was nevertheless limited for average citizens in the 2034 quake, and California Institute of Technology, which, of all the network’s universities, had focused the most on earthquake preparedness and response, was severely damaged, taking it offline. In a manner that had been well rehearsed in multiple tabletop exercises, the coordination activities normally performed by Caltech were distributed almost instantaneously throughout the network.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County, a 25-foot-high tsunami unleashed damage up to three miles inland from the coast. As a result, airplanes could no longer land at Los Angeles airports, water for much of the city was no longer potable, and power outages were significant. Fortunately, due in part to smart-grid technologies developed at the University of Colorado Boulder, roughly 50% of the city still had power. Low-cost solar thermal water purification systems originally developed by the University of Texas at Austin and at El Paso, the University of Arizona, and others for routine use in mid-income countries were airdropped to various centers in the city for widespread distribution.

Thanks to a combination of solar energy, batteries, and microgrid technologies, those hospitals that were still structurally sound largely retained power and could treat patients, even in areas lacking power from the grid. Portable solar cells printed on lightweight solar tarps (developed at Stanford and UC Boulder in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the University of New Mexico) were airdropped into other areas, including south central Los Angeles, where power was more severely disrupted.

The situation was still a disaster, requiring a large all-hands response coordinated by federal and state governments. But contributions of the university science and engineering network played a key role in saving lives and recovering the region’s essential functions.

Nothing tests people, systems, and processes more acutely than a major crisis—as the present situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has shown over and over. Such pandemics historically “have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” as novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote in the Financial Times last year. They are what she called “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” The world can expect more such crises in the future, as the above scenario illustrates. But with targeted, smart planning over the next few years, society can be better prepared to meet them.

Nothing tests people, systems, and processes more acutely than a major crisis—as the present situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has shown over and over.

The academic world is not immune to such disruptions. Decisionmakers have been forced over the past couple of years to reexamine long-held paradigms about conducting research and development, embracing those processes that have worked well while recognizing that universities can improve upon current approaches, in some cases at a systemic level.

Here we share some thoughts based upon our experiences working with a diverse range of stakeholders, from government policymakers to researchers in the laboratory, that may help universities more effectively leverage the talent in scientific, engineering, and policy communities to create a more resilient, inclusive, and agile research enterprise. We also propose one possible framework for creating such an enterprise—which we call the Network of Agile Science and Engineering Centers.

The future of research universities

It is generally understood that modern research universities are complex organizations that are deeply interconnected with a range of stakeholders. These universities create knowledge, technologies, and jobs and enable economic development. They are integral partners with government, industry, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the wider community. They are critical local hubs for innovation where students, startups, researchers, corporate innovation centers, and corporate offices intersect. They serve as anchor institutions within their communities and help to develop the next-generation workforce.

Like many research universities, and independent of the COVID-19 crisis, we at Georgia Tech launched a major study in the early part of 2020 that reexamined the role of research universities in society. The study considered the external forces to which these universities must respond, the problems they must address, with whom and how they should partner, and how they should be structured. We wanted to take a hard look at a basic question: Knowing what we know today, if we were to develop the university research enterprise from scratch, what would it look like? Our efforts were slowed by the pandemic, which also, and somewhat paradoxically, clarified the impact of global crises and brought to the forefront issues such as inequity of access and opportunity, the power and fragility of supply chains, and the need for well-coordinated scientific and engineering partnerships that can respond nimbly to rapidly—and sometimes radically—changing circumstances. 

Meanwhile, a second group of us at Georgia Tech engaged in a more long-range strategic planning effort, with input from sectors beyond academia. The efforts of this group led its members to develop a specific concept for restructuring a part of the research enterprise via a highly coordinated group of centers of excellence based at individual universities and directed by a committee of academic leaders.

Knowing what we know today, if we were to develop the university research enterprise from scratch, what would it look like?

A core conclusion of our first study was that research universities have a responsibility to play a greater role in helping society address and plan for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead—including, but not limited to, climate change, equity, health and aging, security, and strengthening democratic institutions. But academia must be more adaptable—or agile, in business parlance—to an ever-changing environment than it has historically been.

Four key takeaways emerged from this study.

Organize around complex missions. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, we were forced to reconsider our internal structures and processes, asking: How is the work done? Who and what are rewarded? How can research organizations tackle complex societal challenges and create new research directions; empower and support all Americans; combine research, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, corporate engagement, and economic development; and ensure compliance, security, and research integrity?

We can and must innovate in how research organizations are organized to execute their missions. Commercialization and licensing, interdisciplinary research, external partnerships, and other functions in the research enterprise all cut across many of the current departments and people in universities, and there are many possible ways to organize these functions. Continued effort, thoughtful experimentation, and sharing of best practices will be key to sustained improvement in research organizations. Possibly the two largest challenges that cut across all research universities are (1) creating effective approaches for organizing and rewarding transdisciplinary work and (2) developing approaches for apportioning resources and credit across the many contributing partners. In the language of sports, we must learn to reward the assists as well as the successful shots.

Embrace arbitration over advocacy. The collective challenges we face as a society involve the complex interplay of policy, politics, finance, human behavior, history, science, and technology. Moreover, as has been self-evident in recent years, knowledge and science are easily politicized. Critical societal challenges and opportunities are coupled with deeply concerning trends in the national discourse: growing polarization in thought, increasing distrust in foundational institutions, and expanding distrust or cynicism regarding “experts.” Indeed, an important lesson often lost on the research community is that improved expert knowledge often does not clarify the path that seemingly rational people should take on a complex topic—a subject explored at great length by Daniel Sarewitz. In addition, greater knowledge often does not reduce political controversy in areas where there is no consensus on values, such as abortion, use of fetal stem cells, or nuclear power.

Consequently, universities must institutionalize the cultures and processes to increasingly serve as, and be perceived as, honest brokers. Honest brokers, as described by political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., engage themselves deeply within the broader set of stakeholders to expand the scope and ramifications of policy options for decisionmakers while simultaneously educating the public and transparently advocating for critical and independent thinking. At the same time, academics should be extremely careful about engaging in advocacy—no matter how well intentioned—because it can so easily and cynically be dismissed by opponents as simply the voice of another special interest, thereby discounting the important role that subject expertise can play. Of course, most academics don’t see themselves simply as advocates but rather as truth-tellers. Indeed, “speaking truth” is a clear role for experts, particularly in cases where there is low scientific uncertainty. However, many of the most perplexing problems facing society, problems in which subject matter experts can be helpful, involve high uncertainty as well as low societal consensus on values—where honest broker roles would be more appropriate.

Form holistic, trusted partnerships. Universities are but one actor in seeking and implementing solutions to societal challenges, but they must become more integrated as trusted partners in the wider ecosystem of governments, companies, NGOs, and local communities. Corporate-university engagement is already shifting from ad hoc, one-off, problem-specific efforts to increasingly holistic partnerships organized around student recruitment, development of innovative solutions, research, and access to specialized equipment. The same approach must be more extensively implemented around holistic partnerships with cities, states, and communities, whether as anchor institutions, facilitators of educational advancement at the K–12 level, hubs of innovation with commercial potential, or strategic partners with industry.

Critical societal challenges and opportunities are coupled with deeply concerning trends in the national discourse.

Partnership models must also evolve from a collection of two-way partnerships to an interconnected network (as described in our speculative but realistic earthquake example above). Increasingly, research universities should envision themselves as conveners and partnership builders for local communities, government, industry, and other NGOs. Some of these partnership models and support structures, such as higher education and federal engagement, are well developed due to the successful implementation of ideas articulated by presidential science advisor Vannevar Bush more than 75 years ago. Others models, such as serving as anchor institutions for local communities and fully engaging with them, are less so. 

A key conclusion from our study was the need for universities to define and better understand the social and economic ecosystems in which they operate when framing partnership opportunities. No university can be all things to all sectors. For starters, universities should strive for shared values and transparency around intellectual property and publishing as well as the impact on student education. Universities also need to consider how activities will be guided and reviewed to make sure they contribute to the overarching goals of a given partnership. Finally, a key conclusion of our analysis was that the kinds of interconnected partnerships we envision require an organization—including its structure, function, and roles—that is consciously and proactively designed around such holistic partnerships. In other words, don’t just bolt a “partnership” office onto the preexisting research org chart.    

Organically integrate equity and inclusion. Equity and inclusion cut across the research university in multiple dimensions. Not only are equity and inclusion core values that reflect our foundational assumptions about the dignity and equality of all people; they are also key strategies for enabling more innovative approaches and better solutions. 

Research universities should envision themselves as conveners and partnership builders for local communities, government, industry, and other NGOs. 

Framing the appropriate research questions, bringing the full fruits of research and innovation to everyone in society, and engaging the full representation of humanity in the research enterprise will continue to require attention, monitoring, and new models to include more minds, all voices, and diverse perspectives. It is neither appropriate nor beneficial to focus only on challenges defined exclusively by university researchers. Instead, such researchers must engage those affected by the answers to help frame the research questions.

Thus, equity and inclusion efforts must be deeply integrated into the research organization and structure at all levels—rather than being just the responsibility of diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. In addition, engagement must be built upon transparent and accessible data and information, enabling accountability and metric tracking. Finally, the values of equity and inclusion must be integral to how academia develops the structures, functions, and organizational constructs by which the research university is organized.

Concrete options

In addition to considering new roles for universities, another group of colleagues at Georgia Tech, with input from other sectors, examined concrete options for future planning. This second study group began developing a specific concept for restructuring some of the research enterprise, which its members dubbed a Network of Agile Science and Engineering Centers (NASEC). Consisting of a highly coordinated group of centers of excellence directed by academic leaders, the proposed network would take a holistic approach to preparing for and addressing problems of critical global needs and developing rapid responses. It would address a wide range of issues including communication, supply chains, logistics, policy, regulation, information dissemination, scalability of approaches, and independent validation of approaches. NASEC’s efforts would need to be coordinated, not only to save lives and ensure well-being in difficult circumstances (e.g., disasters), but also to work on longer-term issues that are critical to national interests and the future of the planet (e.g., climate change). Rather than attempting to predict specific disasters, NASEC would focus on efforts to mitigate their impact. 

This Georgia Tech group also developed four guiding principles on which NASEC should operate for best results. These principles are based on extensive experience working within research networks or centers and observing the successes and inefficiencies of organically formed networks within the academy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is neither appropriate nor beneficial to focus only on challenges defined exclusively by university researchers.

First, because the group is meant to be a massively interconnected network, there should be a high degree of communication and collaboration, both within the network and with a wide range of governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders. We suggest that such interconnectivity is essential because, in the heat of the moment, even when there is tremendous goodwill, there is not always clear coordinating of activities, sharing of best practices, or, perhaps most importantly, filtering out of less-than-best practices. We have observed such inefficiencies, which result in duplicative effects, while sitting on ad hoc panels and working groups that include industrial, government, and academic entities. In some cases, data were shared relatively widely, without clear definition of the assumptions and collection techniques required to validate or invalidate conclusions. This unclear communication can and did lead to confusion and uncertainty, which is problematic in the best of times, but truly unacceptable in crisis situations in which there is no time for the self-correction process that often takes place in the scientific research community. 

Second, currently underserved communities must be active participants in NASEC, so that their voices are heard and their populations benefit from training in the network. Promoting socially just practices is not only the right thing to do; it also increases buy-in from underserved groups that have good historical reasons for being skeptical of major scientific and engineering endeavors.

Third, the network should adopt elements of frugal science and technology to ensure that populations with limited means—both locally and globally—can participate in the benefits of technologies and processes developed in NASEC. In other words, we need to find solutions that are both affordable and have the potential to be widely disseminated throughout the globe, independent of the wealth of the community affected.  

Fourth and finally, the proposed network should help secure the United States’ economic competitiveness and greater independence in the materials and manufacturing processes essential to the country’s supply chain. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, there have been geopolitical and simple transport issues between the United States and China that created challenges for US companies in gaining access to masks and raw materials needed to combat the pandemic. This situation required US companies to pivot rapidly to retool manufacturing capacity toward making products such as ventilators, N95 masks, and hand sanitizer that directly affect the response to the pandemic. In addition, the lack of access to precious metals and semiconductors had indirect impact on production of goods and services that were important to both the pandemic response and the economic recovery that would follow.

Back to the future

The year is 2037. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other threats to US national and economic security, both presidential and congressional commissions made several key recommendations to address some of the long-term challenges facing the country. One such recommendation led to the creation, in the late 2020s, of the Network of Agile Science and Engineering Centers. In the period since its inception, NASEC became integrated into the fabric of our national resources, not only to respond to near-term urgent crises, but to play a role in addressing challenges playing out more slowly in the United States and globally. 

The proposed network should help secure the United States’ economic competitiveness and greater independence in the materials and manufacturing processes essential to the country’s supply chain.

NASEC trained a generation of researchers, first responders, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and educators in the United States with a holistic view of crises and a set of skills required to be an effective part of nationwide teams addressing them. Importantly, students and postdoctoral researchers in NASEC, as well as its more senior members, forged close personal ties during their time together. Consequently, important professional connections and, critically, an appreciation of the multidimensional aspects of crises were developed through participation in NASEC activities. Armed with these insights, NASEC alumni, who remain closely connected through its active alumni network, were hired by numerous organizations in the public and private sectors and, because of their unique training, rapidly advanced to leadership positions in the institutions that employed them.

One reason for this success is that these professionals brought to their new jobs the guiding principles and values that underpin NASEC. Along the way, they also learned (or in some cases relearned) the importance of having excellent communication skills, an empathetic approach to problem-solving, the ethic to be constantly training for various scenarios, and the ability to prioritize and reprioritize responses in the face of chaos and external pressures from, for example, the media and politicians. Just as important, NASEC alumni have infused their agile, holistic approach into many organizations throughout the United States, establishing a foundation for more readily addressing new and previously unrecognized challenges as they arise.

Leading through the portal

COVID-19 was a serious wake-up call to the United States and the world. Society’s response made it clear that many aspects of the national and global infrastructure were ill prepared to deal with such a crisis. Such a monumental disruption to people’s health and economic and social well-being had an immediate impact and will continue to have long-term effects. This disruption has led the United States to reevaluate its overall response to various societal threats, both those that are naturally occurring and those created by humans. It was evident that although the nation had in place many entities and agencies—from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to national laboratories, nonprofits, and industry—working with state and local governments to address crises, more could and needed to be done to secure the country’s infrastructure and population. 

Research universities have unparalleled opportunities and responsibilities to serve an increasingly complex society: to develop innovative solutions, educate the next generation, and enable economic prosperity; to play critical roles as conveners, bridge builders, and partners; and to be indispensable, trusted authorities. Just as importantly, as has been made painfully clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, universities must continue to be agile in responding to largely unknown yet certain to occur large disruptions.

To quote Roy’s article again, “[The pandemic] is a portal…. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Research universities must lead the march through the portal, into a better world.

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Cite this Article

Lieuwen, Timothy, Seth Marder, and Chaouki T. Abdallah. “Imagining the Role of the Research University Anew.” Issues in Science and Technology (September 28, 2021).