Scaling the Ivory Tower

Maybe there was a time when universities could operate as more or less self-sustaining institutions, safely removed from the world’s daily complications beyond the so-called ivory tower. I’m not sure when that was (the late 19th Century? The 1950s? I’m no historian).

Regardless, that’s not the case today. In the context of an uncertain economy, disruptive technology, and increasingly precarious job prospects, today’s students and researchers are looking for more than just the prestige and enlightenment of studying on a university campus. They’re engaged in their communities; launching start-ups and commercializing ideas; working across disciplines and sectors; and communicating their findings with audiences beyond their universities.

The trouble is that the existing model for research funding wasn’t built for this: it rewards established university researchers pursuing discipline-specific research projects, while emerging researchers need funding for collaborative, cross-disciplinary research projects. Discovery and applied research are categorized separately, as if one doesn’t often feed into the other. And public research grants weren’t designed for the research that’s emerging from the makerspaces, start-ups’ R&D labs, or even in the garages of entrepreneurial young Canadians.  

So with all of this going on, how are universities and granting agencies adapting? How do we ensure that public research investments are keeping up with all of these changes and anticipating new ones? At the 2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, some early career researchers weighed in on the topic, and a couple of interesting themes emerged.

The good news is that universities are becoming more dynamic places, but they don’t always reward or incentivize professors to experiment, collaborate across disciplines, or engage in projects beyond the walls of the ivory tower. Academic and research communities need to actively break down the barriers that hinder new collaborations; those that fail to adapt risk falling behind.

We also need to question assumptions about what a researcher or a research team looks like. Many paths can lead to big discoveries, whether they stem from an interdisciplinary team of academics, a single scientist in a lab, or a group of innovators with a good idea. We need research funding models that embrace research diversity.

Finally, let’s not forget that while we live in a fast-paced world, we still need places where we can take our time to learn and think critically. Stable, long-term funding remains vital to our research competitiveness. And we do this well — we punch way above our weight when it comes to our global share of publications, for example. So we want and need to evolve our systems, but let’s not overlook our strengths as we push for changes. 

Still, the world is changing. We have to do a better job of recognizing and supporting diverse approaches to research, and continue making our own ivory towers more accessible and dynamic places.

Note: The panel discussion being paraphrased/co-opted in this blog post took place at the Canadian Science Policy Conference on November 9, 2016 in Ottawa. It featured Maria DeRosa, a chemist from Carleton University and current Chair of the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering; Jeremy Kerr, a biologist from uOttawa and President of the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution; S. Karly Kehoe, a historian and Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Communities from St. Mary’s University in Halifax; Andrew Pelling, a biophysicist at uOttawa and 2016 TED Fellow; Val Walker, VP Skills and Innovation at the Business Council of Canada; and was moderated by Rees Kassen, Professor and University Research Chair in Experimental Evolution, University of Ottawa and past Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy. The participants provided the material, but they weren’t involved in drafting this blog post. 


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