Rebuilding the Ivory Tower?

David Hart and Linda Silka say that when they began building an academic center for doing science that makes a difference, they found no comprehensive field guides. Thanks to their pioneering work, described in “Rebuilding the Ivory Tower” (Issues, Summer 2020), we now have one, and it provides useful signposts for creating institutes that connect research with societal needs.

Their lessons are also helpful because there are numerous obstacles to developing real-world, solutions-oriented research. I appreciate in particular how Hart and Silka reframe many of the challenges they encountered as opportunities. For example, rather than lament the difficulties in bringing together interdisciplinary researchers and community partners to work together, they embrace them and encourage perseverance that can lead to sustained collaboration. While noting how differences in values or perspectives among academics and others can lead to conflict, they describe these differences as a source of creativity and innovative problem solving.

Still, academic institutes that want to align research with societal needs need to grapple with several key issues that the authors didn’t cover.

How do we effectively integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout science that informs action? Issues of power, privilege, and who is at the table are central to connecting research and decision-making. Doing science in a more inclusive way makes it more relevant to a diverse set of stakeholders and more effective at addressing the social dimensions that underpin many sustainability problems.

What are the impacts? How do we know if strategies for aligning research with societal needs are working, or if they’re making a difference? To validate the claim that this approach to research produces more solutions, we need to deal with difficult-to-track outcomes, complex and messy decision-making processes, and the long-term nature of effectively managing sustainability problems.

To validate the claim that this approach to research produces more solutions, we need to deal with difficult-to-track outcomes, complex and messy decision-making processes, and the long-term nature of effectively managing sustainability problems.

Nevertheless, it’s inspiring to learn from Hart and Silka’s experiences. The institutional change they call for is underway. Academic centers around the world are mobilizing scholars and leaders to solve societal problems. For example, the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, where I work, catalyzes collaborative research at the interface of four themes (climate solutions, health and well-being, sustainable agriculture, and resilient communities) and partners with leaders in government, business, and society to develop solutions to urgent global issues.

The ivory tower won’t be rebuilt in a day. To take this work to the next level, institutes need to work together more. We need to build a community of practice and collaborate strategically. Imagine if we replicated projects in our own states and then evaluated and presented them together, or formed an annual directors roundtable, or leveraged strengths and lessons across partnerships that span academic research and other sectors. Together, we can create a broader shared culture for interdisciplinary research that solves real-world problems.

Director of Policy
Gund Institute for Environment
University of Vermont

David Hart and Linda Silka’s blueprint for fundamentally changing their university is particularly telling given that they are based within a land-grant college steeped in the history of cooperative extension. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 built the extension system on the foundation of the land-grant colleges with the express goal of linking university research to real-world solutions. In many respects, the act was hugely successful.

But as the authors argue, this success remains narrow and limited, and the promise of universities better aligning knowledge and action has faltered. Universities indeed produce “more and better science,” but they fail to effectively connect that science to decision-making in order to make a difference in the world outside the ivory tower.

This is where an even more radical transformation in the academy is required. The authors identify the problem, but do not take the next logical prescriptive step. They note, for example, that several members of the National Academy of Sciences who advised them “felt the risks to such junior faculty during the tenure review process would be too high, and warned that participation in a solutions-oriented interdisciplinary project focused on community stakeholders would adversely affect their publication rate, evaluation by disciplinary peers, and other traditional criteria in tenure review processes.” This commentary is at the heart of why the authors must work so creatively and with such determination—for they are countering a system that fundamentally works against their goals.

Until the academy fully rewards faculty through its hiring and promotion processes for the values inherent in the Hart and Silka experiment, these kinds of solutions-oriented interdisciplinary projects will have impact only at the margins. Their success in creating a dynamic and effective link between their university and stakeholders outside is a huge testament to their team’s and partners’ ingenuity and perseverance.

But if we really want to solve the authors’ “wicked problems” at the scale that is required, and we really want to leverage the expertise of the academy to “solve real-word problems and create a brighter future,” universities will have to transform the entire structure of rewards and incentives that drive faculty promotion. When the norm is tenure committees routinely looking positively on a junior faculty’s “solutions-oriented interdisciplinary project focused on community stakeholders,” then we will know that the ivory tower has been truly rebuilt.

John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies
University of Massachusetts Boston

David Hart and Linda Silka revisit enduring principles with refreshing insights. The tortured relationship between science and society is no secret by now, nor is the dichotomous nature of universities as institutions that uphold longstanding traditions at odds with their own research. In this context, the authors’ reflections on perseverance are, to me, the most revealing and timely.

Perseverance is critical not simply because the scientific community is bogged down by stale norms, and not simply because credible science depends on data and results that can be proven over time. Perseverance is critical because sustainable solutions require conflict resolution. Hart and Silka embrace conflict as “raw material in crafting new ways in understanding and solving societal problems.” They are not simply turning a negative to a positive.

Their emphasis on perseverance is nuanced and sympathetic. They describe “stick-to-itiveness” as important to keep people at the table, not to endure at any cost. Right now, we are painfully aware of how fragile relationships can be. And we are challenged by how quickly the context for sustainability can change. People are increasingly led to believe that good work is easy and easily reproducible, but as the authors state early on, people are a fundamental part of any sustainability issue. People have attitudes, beliefs, and preferences.

Hart and Silka ask, Why would anyone’s beliefs, attitudes, norms, and preferences be easily won over? Over the course of their article, that nagging question gives way to another more hopeful take. Sure, doing work for public benefit is hard, but why should that make it any less rewarding?

Deputy Director of Climate and Science Risk Communication
City of New York

David Hart and Linda Silka’s article was both encouraging and troubling. It was encouraging, as their successes in doing good interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research are mirrored around the world. Even from the vantage point of Tasmania, Australia, a reflective case study from Maine provides a valuable contribution.

What I found troubling were the big challenges that the authors evade, which have substantial implications for our societies. The authors frame necessity through the familiar realization that “pushing back the frontiers of knowledge” was not enough. They jump, pragmatically, to what they could do about this predicament.

But surely, the job of the academy is also to unpack root problems. Why was “doing their part” as scientists not (perhaps no longer) enough? There are many answers to this question, and significant scholarship that attends to them. In brief, this literature speaks to a deep disconnect between how societies make knowledge and how they govern. If it were just that our scientific forms of knowledge production were inadequate, researchers might simply get outside the ivory tower to learn with indigenous people, fishers, farmers, and others.

But this is not the only reason researchers are engaging with diverse stakeholders. We are also working to find and frame problems, and to build collectives that can address them. It is a long bow to call this research. It is governing, and it is necessary. We must do what we can.

My too-brief answer regarding necessity also reveals why the work is so difficult. Governing is hard at the best of times, but harder when you have no formal mandate to define and implement policy options. As researchers, we trade on good will, credibility, and short-term funding. We find ways forward. We build alliances with those who do have mandates, capital, and influence—and hopefully with those most affected by change.

We do all this because resources are being degraded and livelihoods being lost, among other problems. But is there an underlying reason that is rarely spoken of? Could there be a governance vacuum that must be filled? This is the argument some of my Australian colleagues make: that the winnowing of knowledge and capacity within governments is leading to situations in which outcomes are outsourced to universities and consultants. Grand challenges are hived-off, piecemeal, as short-term projects.

Places such as Maine and Tasmania are at an advantage here because our thick networks and deep commitments to communities stand in, to some degree at least, for the institutional mandates, memories, and capabilities that are required to govern complex change processes over long periods. But we cannot replace good institutions for governing, and scientists need to say so, even when it is against our short-term interests.

University of Tasmania

Cite this Article

“Rebuilding the Ivory Tower?” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 4 (Summer 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Summer 2020