Power of Partnerships


It’s the Partnership, Stupid
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In “It’s the Partnership, Stupid” (Issues, Summer 2017), Ben Shneiderman and James Hendler advocate for a new research model that applies evidence-based inquiry to practical problems with vigor equal to that previously reserved for pursuits of basic science. The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute at the University of California, where I work, take this premise as an essential element of our mission. Research initiatives in sustainable infrastructures, health, robotics, and civic engagement, along with affiliated laboratories and a start-up accelerator, have given rise not only to successful commercialization of research but also to effective partnerships with industry, government agencies, and the nonprofit sector.

Iterative and incremental development, when ideas are tested and refined through give-and-take with stakeholders throughout the process, results in better outcomes for end users and a greater impact for the inventor or team than when they work in isolation. Whereas conventional attitudes might relegate interaction with partners to resolving tedious details of implementation, the proposed model can present real technological and intellectual challenges that advance the science as well as the solution. Some examples from CITRIS investigators include:

  • Applications of sensor technology to improve energy efficiency in buildings while preserving privacy of individual occupants.
  • Innovations bringing together experts in robotics and machine learning with farmers to develop tools for precision agriculture.
  • Development of noninvasive medical devices to monitor blood sugar levels or fetal oxidation.
  • Online platforms for engaging citizens in feedback, deliberation, and decision making, involving communities in the City of Vallejo and throughout California, as well as in Uganda, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Permeable boundaries between industry and academia have long prevailed in science and engineering fields, often driven by motivated individuals—faculty members serving as consultants, or industrial fellows spending time on campus. Building on these important relationships, institutional leaders can create a more sustainable and productive model by fostering a welcoming environment for collaborations among organizations. Addressing complex problems involving multiple systems and stakeholders will require an interdisciplinary approach, beyond the scope of an individual researcher or single lab.

How can universities encourage such partnerships, or at least reduce some of the friction that currently impedes their adoption? Shneiderman and Hendler provide useful guidelines for partnerships in their “pillars of collaboration,” and they hail signs of culture change among universities in their policies for tenure and promotion and among funding agencies in their calls for proposals. Universities could go further in three ways: recognize faculty for evidence of work that results in products, policies, or processes beyond (or in addition to) academic publications; simplify the framework in research administration, often a confusing thicket of internal regulations, for working with off-campus organizations; and support and develop career paths for research facilitators, specialized project managers who straddle the worlds of academic research, industrial partnerships, and community engagement. As we face increasingly complex global challenges, these steps can maximize the positive impact of collaborative research through the power of partnerships.

Deputy Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute

University of California

The notions of societal engagement presented by Ben Shneiderman and James Hendler resonate deeply with public research universities, especially those with land-grant heritage. Collaboration among academia, government, and industry is richly woven into our histories as we conduct research and cultivate a next-generation science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce to advance the national interest. Members of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are particularly invested in working with local, state, regional, national, and international organizations to address societal needs. We celebrate the more than 50 public universities that have completed a rigorous self-evaluation and benchmarking exercise to earn the association’s designation as an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University, demonstrating their commitment to economic engagement.

Though there are certainly deficiencies in the linear model of basic research to applied research to development, we caution that there is still a vital role for inquiry-based fundamental research to build a foundational knowledge base. Surely, Shneiderman and Hendler would agree there is a need for a good portion of research to follow a theory-driven approach without knowing in advance the potential practical impact. Such research is by no means in conflict with service to society; in fact, many of the most pioneering innovations can trace their roots to fundamental research that was unconstrained by short-term commercialization aims.

Still, the authors offer an important reminder that universities must redouble their societal engagement through research that addresses the challenges of our time. We agree on the need to accelerate the advance of fundamental knowledge and its application to solve real-world problems. Thus, we are delighted to be early participants in the Highly Integrated Basic and Responsive (HIBAR) Research Alliance and intend to promote this contemporary concept of broadening participation among stakeholders to produce more accessible research. HIBAR builds on the strong foundation of earlier work by the National Academies, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and others, and calls for the adoption of transdisciplinary, convergence, and Grand Challenge research approaches. This collective effort crucially aims to promote partnerships and to advance academic research with increased societal relevance.

Our association is pleased to work alongside partner organizations to further develop HIBAR. This reaffirms our commitment to confronting societal challenges by conducting research focusing on real-world problem solving and engaging a diverse range of stakeholders. We believe this emerging and evolving effort will prove key to addressing the most vexing issues facing society and will produce a prominent impact moving forward.

Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

Ben Shneiderman and James Hendler provide an excellent description of the power of researcher/practitioner partnerships. They describe how partners should agree up front on goals, budgets, schedules, and decision making, as well as on how to share data, intellectual property, and credit.

They also describe a big problem: academic culture often discourages real-world partnerships. They trace this back to 1945, when presidential adviser Vannevar Bush argued that universities best serve the needs of society by disconnecting from those needs. Bush recommended a one-way sequential process whereby ideas begin within purely curiosity-driven research and gradually acquire usefulness while passing through private-sector laboratories to emerge as better drugs, smarter phones, and so on.

But this model agrees poorly with science history, so Shneiderman and Hendler question the academic culture that arose from it. I share their view, with an added nuance: Bush was not all wrong. His isolation doctrine does protect some important academic freedoms. However, it weakens others. Consider researchers who have the ability and desire to help solve key societal problems. An isolationist culture restricts their academic freedom to do so. In effect, it says, “If your research is useful, you do not really belong in a university.” This problem hurts us all. Can it be fixed?

Like Shneiderman and Hendler, I am optimistic, although I fear they may have underestimated the tenacity of current academic culture. True, there are encouraging signs, but most previous culture improvement efforts have failed, despite promising indicators. We need more than promise: we need a plausible, evidence-based plan for achieving the needed changes.

Fortunately, in recent years well-established principles have been developed for improving culture. Change efforts should be collaborative, first developing shared goals that are clearly defined and measurable. They must then surpass three critical thresholds that are often greatly underestimated: there must be enough skillful effort applied; for a long enough time; and it must be true that once the new normal is achieved, enough people will prefer it.

With this in mind, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is building on its legacy of public service and addressing challenges by hosting discussions of academic and societal leaders on this topic. By consensus, they clearly defined and named this research mode “Highly Integrative Basic and Responsive” (HIBAR) research, and various partners in the discussions have now formed the HIBAR Research Alliance to further progress. (The previous letter provides additional information about the alliance.) Research partners in the program combine excellence in both basic research and societal problem solving, through four essential intersections. Together, they seek new academic knowledge and solutions to important problems; link academic research methods with practical creative thinking; include academic experts and nonacademic leaders; and help society faster than basic studies yet beyond business time frames.

Alliance members are working to develop promising change strategies. These will target processes for research training, faculty grant allocation, and career advancement. Today, too often individual achievements in one discipline are valued over positive societal impact, creativity, teamwork, and diversity. We can and must improve this. As we succeed, everyone will benefit.

Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Special Advisor on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Research

University of British Columbia

Cite this Article

“Power of Partnerships.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 1 (Fall 2017).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall 2017