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How Can We Realign Academic Research Priorities to Help Solve the World’s Sustainability Challenges?

When I began an academic career about 40 years ago, I was a child of the environmental movement. I was 13 on the first Earth Day, 15 at the passage of the Clean Water Act, 16 when the Endangered Species Act came into force, and 28 when I started my first tenure-track faculty position. I became a biologist because I hoped my scientific endeavors would help protect the natural world. Little did I know when I started my career how far apart the questions of academic research—including my own—were from the questions policymakers and natural resource managers needed answering.

Fast forward and now I direct Cornell Atkinson, one of the growing number of university-based research centers whose declared mission is to help solve the world’s sustainability challenges. It’s not as far-fetched an idea as it would have been 40 years ago. The public demand for solutions has exploded. A few years ago, who would have imagined that multiple Super Bowl commercials in the last two years would have hyped electric vehicles, decried food waste, and focused on social impact investing? Or that the US Congress would pass multiple major pieces of legislation that establish industrial policy to accelerate the energy transition and slow climate change?

For universities, the incentives and funding opportunities for research that is more applied have grown a bit, partly as a result of the recent federal legislation. Yet the problems are extremely urgent, government funding agencies still favor basic science, universities prioritize theoretical and basic bench science, and the human and organizational infrastructure of universities too often makes them lousy partners for applied funding agencies, foundations, and corporations wanting to solve the climate crisis.

It is imperative that we realign some university research to be more powerful than ever as a partner in helping to reduce climate risks, accelerate the energy transition, increase food security, and advance the interconnected health of people, animals, and ecosystems.

In university circles, climate change is often described as an intellectual challenge against which universities, with increased government funding, will marshal their research expertise and defeat. For that to happen, however, universities must first solve a more parochial grand challenge: for the most part, university research is not appropriately organized and incentivized to solve climate change or any of the other major challenges facing humanity.

Instead, the impact of university researchers is most often quantified by metrics that are quite divorced from societal needs: the H-index (a metric of how often articles published by a researcher are cited in articles published by other researchers) and, ironically, the Impact Factor (an index of how often articles published in that journal are cited by other articles). In other words, these metrics quantify influence on other academic specialists in a researcher’s academic discipline, which are usually narrowly constructed. These and closely related metrics determine professional advancement and financial rewards. There is often nothing about this reward system that incentivizes research aimed at actually solving climate change, transitioning to cleaner energy, providing more people with more nutritious food, or increasing the combined health of people and planet.

Universities remain, first and foremost, the place for curiosity-driven, discovery research, which continues to be vital for the human spirit and critical for society’s health in the long run. However, if that is the only kind of research that is valued in universities, we are on a trajectory of increasing irrelevance in helping solve the immediate climate crisis.

For academic research to inform the solutions needed this decade, universities must reward more strongly the subset of faculty and students who seek to have their research influenced by the needs of society; to co-create research with NGOs, foundations, government agencies, and corporations; and to contribute to innovation in products, practices, and policies that will slow and ultimately reverse climate change.

This requires Cornell Atkinson and our sister institutes at other universities to create incentives for research transcending traditional disciplines, the adoption of a more humble attitude to enable collaboration with those without PhDs, and the maintenance of long-term strategic partnerships with non-university organizations that can help guide research and increase the scale of its application to solve real-world problems. Over a longer time frame, it requires university leaders to create metrics for hiring, tenure, and promotion that better align with these goals.

As the land-grant university for New York state, Cornell has a distinctive heritage of prizing applied research—in the words of founder Ezra Cornell, “. . . an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education . . .”  At Cornell Atkinson, we will continue striving to connect with external partners, to collaboratively develop practical solutions, and to offer our expertise to organizations with complementary expertise and a shared passion for helping to treat—as well as to diagnose—the wicked sustainability ills of our time.


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