Under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s upcoming Annual Meeting of the New Champions, a group of 30 senior representatives from top research universities and other prominent institutions gathered in Geneva to discuss challenges in research. Three interrelated sets of challenges emerged with particular clarity: funding, communication and collaboration. The group also discussed solutions and opportunities associated with these challenges.

Funding

Although the need to increase funding for scientific research received much attention, concern was also expressed about other issues. Among these was the importance in finding the proper balance between basic and applied research and also between long-term “big science” research, like the human genome project, and independent single investigator studies with more limited objectives. There were also concerns about interference by political and other forces that undermine the merit-based peer review process and advocate non-scientific criteria for making funding decisions. Ensuring that the social sciences are not neglected was an additional concern.

In light of these and other needs, states should strive to provide adequate support for scientific research, including basic research; funding institutions should strive to ensure that merit-based criteria and peer review govern funding decisions; and institutions conducting research should avoid collaboration with funders who seek to control or distort their research agendas. To foster an environment in which these principles are appreciated and respected, it is important that the scientific community establish effective communication with non-scientific audiences, including governments and investors, and that research institutions create platforms for sharing information in order to help build scientific literacy among the public. Finally, at the international level, a global communications structure should be established to encourage coordination and cooperation.

Communication

There is a need to communicate scientific advances clearly and honestly, and towards this end the scientific community should use all available communication tools. Research institutions and investigators should employ social media and newer technologies, as well as more traditional avenues. They should also work with representatives from the media, government and business to build appreciation and understanding among relevant audiences. Industry-oriented labs at research universities, for instance, are well positioned not only to establish productive relations between academia and business but also to communicate to society the value of research that is basic as well as applied. These needs and objectives require that researchers and scientists be willing and able to communicate their findings to audiences that extend beyond their academic peers.

Collaboration

Participants affirmed the value of collaboration among scientists and researchers. This should occur within and across institutions and also within and across disciplines. To achieve this, research institutions should find ways to enable researchers in different fields to meet and learn about each other’s work. At the same time, even as they affirmed the value of collaboration and interdisciplinary research, most participants, though not all, stressed that this did not reduce the need for strong discipline-focused academic departments at research universities.

There was considerable discussion, and some disagreement, about the appropriate balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches in promoting collaboration within universities and other research institutions. The former can provide incentives and offer guidance informed by the big picture, whereas the latter ensures that decisions and resource allocations reflect the knowledge and judgment of those who actually engage in research. There was also discussion about the place of patents in scientific research. Participants agreed on the importance of openness and creating a climate that encourages rather than hinders innovation, leading some to argue for the elimination of patents, or at least for a significant reduction in their use.

With state-of-the-art research increasingly conducted by scientists at many different institutions, collaboration across research universities and institutions, including those in different countries, will also contribute to the production of accurate and valuable scientific knowledge. Participants agreed in this context that it is best for universities to establish a limited number of focused and high-value partnerships and, correspondingly, that little is to be gained by signing a large number of content-free “framework” memoranda of understanding. In pursuing inter-institutional collaboration, it is important to align not only scientific interests but also both decision-making structures and norms relating to such matters as indirect cost recovery, the protection of human subjects and intellectual property. These topics were the subject of lively discussion.

Author: Mark Tessler is Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Vice-Provost for International Affairs at the University of Michigan

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