A core thesis of this landscape analysis is that research universities have a key role to play in addressing the dominant opportunities and challenges facing society, including climate change, equity, health and aging, security, maintaining peace, and strengthening our democratic institutions.
More than ever, research universities must be deeply engaged in these discussions. Coupled with these societal challenges and opportunities are also deeply concerning issues in the national discourse – growing polarization in thought, growing distrust in foundational institutions, and growing distrust or cynicism regarding experts. We must be engaged, but we must engage in new ways. Referring to the societal engagement models discussed in Chapter 1, universities will continue to serve as homes for innovative “pure scientists” or “pure technology developers.” However, we must increasingly serve as trusted partners and step into “honest broker” roles – bringing more ideas and options into discussions, enabled by deeper understanding of the broader set of political, regulatory, and equity issues. We must be vigilant to avoid “stealth advocacy,” which contributes to cynical ideas that everyone can bring their expert to bear for a price, thereby discounting the important role of subject expertise.
Fulfilling this potential will require developing, fostering, and contributing to a widening network of partners that share our core values and add to our execution of the research university mission. Increasingly, research universities will be relied upon to be conveners and partnership builders for local communities, government, industry, and other non-governmental organizations. Some of these partnership models and support structures, such as federal engagement, are well developed. Others, such as serving as anchor institutions and fully engaging local communities, are less so. A key point of Chapter 4 was the need for universities to define and understand their ecosystems when framing partnership opportunities. No university can be all things to all sectors. Universities should strive for clarity, complementarity, shared values, and transparency around intellectual property, publishing, impact on student education, how activities will be guided and reviewed, as well as overarching goals of a given partnership; e.g., advancing knowledge in a particular domain or the development of processes or prototypes. This will, by its very nature, promote an ethical, responsible brand. Additionally, the values of long-term strategic partners will reflect on and become living dimensions of a university’s brand via the purposeful, chosen association.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion issues cut across all of these chapters, and we embrace them as core values and enablers of more innovative approaches and better solutions. Bringing the full fruits of research and innovation to everyone in society, and engaging the full representation of humanity into the research enterprise, will continue to require attention, monitoring, and new models to include more minds, all voices, and diverse perspectives. Similarly, understanding how innovation and technology and the fruits of research promote equity or inequity must be a topic of research itself. It is core to our being a trusted partner. Finally, it must be integral to how we organize ourselves to carry out the research mission.
We envision many exciting innovations in how research organizations are organized to execute on their mission. Commercialization and licensing, interdisciplinary research, external partnerships, and the other functions within the research enterprise all cut across many of the current departments and people in existing universities, and there are many possible ways to organize these functions. Continued effort, thoughtful experimentation, and sharing of best practices will be key to continued improvement in research organization. In closing, research universities have unparalleled opportunities to serve as contributors to, and enablers and producers of, innovation and solutions. They can be enablers of economic prosperity. They can play critical roles as conveners, bridge builders, and partners, not only reacting to, but also influencing broader conversations. They can — and must be — indispensable, trusted partners to society.