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Co-operative research revolution could answer call to transform science and society

Former astronaut Julie Payette urges Canada to use science, knowledge, and innovation as paths to better future for all, during her installation ceremony as Canada’s 29th Governor General in the Senate chamber of Parliament on Oct. 2. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Co-operative research revolution could answer call to transform science and society

Growing social, economic, environmental and political challenges make scientific knowledge not only a critical need, but a path to a shared and brighter future for humanity. That was the message astronaut Julie Payette delivered at her installation this week as Canada’s 29th Governor General.

“Science brings us, forces us to think not in a microcosm of nationality only, but to think in terms of what we could do to advance matters and to push the boundaries of science as partners in a collective spirit, and with a peaceful intent,” the newly minted Queen’s representative said at the throne in the Senate chamber in Ottawa.

“The path for us to take is to trust science, to believe that innovation and discovery are good for us and to make decisions based on data and evidence,” Payette urged, while 6,000 kilometres away, ceremonies to award the Nobel Prizes for science began in Stockholm.

The Governor General’s call to action, embodied by the Nobel Prize, is one that universities are uniquely positioned to answer.

Universities provide society with research and information that is both excellent and relevant, but there is room for improvement. Some is of little use and in rare cases breaches of trust in science have cast doubt.

As researchers on organizational improvement, we believe there is merit in accelerating a time-honoured approach to collaborative research, and that now is the right time to do so.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette urges Canadians to embrace science and knowledge to carry humanity into the future. (CPAC)

HIBAR method of research

Society needs more useful discoveries, so more academics should embrace Highly Integrative Basic and Responsive (HIBAR) research.

HIBAR is a well-established form of research that has led to many major breakthroughs. Examples include the Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of the transistor and the scanning tunneling microscope. HIBAR research led to the internet, modern high performance aircraft and tremendous improvements in cardiovascular health.

HIBAR research teams combine excellence in both basic research and societal problem solving, through four essential intersections.

They:

1) Seek new academic knowledge and solutions to important problems;

2) Link academic research methods with practical creative thinking;

3) Include academic experts and non-academic leaders;

4) Help society faster than basic studies yet beyond business time frames.

We believe society needs HIBAR research to increase over time, and that it can.

One reason we anticipate success is that people love contributing to HIBAR research projects. There are tremendous professional and intellectual rewards when academics partner with experts in government, industry, and non-governmental organizations. These teams produce both better peer-reviewed research and more practical solutions.

Another factor is that today HIBAR partnerships are more feasible than ever, thanks to cheaper travel, desktop videoconferencing, social media, collaboration platforms and other ways to interact.

Additionally, growing evidence shows when academic leaders help boost HIBAR research, society wins and respects their institutions more. In short, the time is ripe for more and better HIBAR research.

Cultural barriers

Unfortunately, three key barriers stand in the way of widespread adoption of the HIBAR research approach. But they’re all surmountable.

The first barrier: Academic systems discourage HIBAR research. Academic culture often fails to reward HIBAR research, especially within the processes for research grant allocation and career advancement. Peer reviewers often undervalue positive societal impact and may favour individual achievements in their field over creativity, teamwork and diversity. This deeply affects how research is funded and carried out, discouraging the HIBAR approach.

An obvious solution is to change these problematic aspects of the culture. But this exposes a second significant barrier.

The second barrier is culture. Culture change is hard, and attempts often fail. Critiques of academic culture are nothing new. But even seasoned leaders with plentiful resources often fail to achieve lasting improvement. Culture can be surprisingly resistant to change.

How can an effort to popularize HIBAR be different this time? How can academia shift from a culture of intellectual lone wolves seeking approval from like-minded peers to a new normal of excellent diverse collaborative efforts for the public good?

Why not apply recent findings on how leaders can achieve culture change? They must exceed three critical thresholds that are generally underestimated: Enough skillful effort must be applied for long enough and once the new normal is achieved, enough people must prefer it.

Unfortunately, that’s asking an awful lot of busy university leaders, which highlights the third key barrier: University leaders, acting alone, cannot change the academic culture to encourage HIBAR research. Even excellent university leaders cannot make this kind of change alone.

Many faculty members care deeply about how their peers around the world view them, and comparatively little about what their own administrators want. Faculty culture is reinforced by the many academics who support traditional behaviours, and perpetuated by the tenure system as well as competition among universities for top researchers.

Still, our experience is that a great many academics enthusiastically welcome greater academic freedom to help improve the world. So how can those positive feelings be harnessed to assist university leaders in enabling needed changes? We believe that this is possible in a new approach that combines the power of the hierarchical organizational structure with grassroots change efforts.

Schematic representation of a Distributed Network of Collaborating Teams (DNCT)

Distributed network

A distributed network of collaborating teams (DNCT) is catalyzing needed university cultural change. Provisionally named the HIBAR Research Alliance, its teams include faculty members and leaders of universities, university associations, and partner organizations, generating balanced advice, endorsement and support.

The teams in the HIBAR Research Alliance will boost HIBAR research through numerous pathways. Some will focus on specific HIBAR themes. For example, at UBC there is a new Blockchain team. Others support HIBAR generally. For example, a team connected with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) encourages HIBAR information sharing, such as this article. Yet another team organizes broad cyclic discussions about possible solutions and adoption barriers, to help coordinate the work.

Since academic culture spans many universities, so does the HIBAR Research Alliance. This means some of the teams have members from a number of universities, while others focus on a single campus.

In general, networks of collaborative, voluntary teams of respected individuals, are a powerful force for changing culture. They are great places for debating ideas, identifying better practices and overcoming barriers. They build shared understandings and their members can help change culture by testing and spreading new approaches, while staying true to valued principles, both local and global.

Clearly this transformation will require great effort. But unlike previous failed change attempts, this one has all the necessary components for success. In short, universities must, and definitely can, evolve to a better new normal in how research is discussed, valued, and rewarded.

The large required change effort will be rewarded by much greater benefits for all. We encourage anyone interested in advancing HIBAR research to take that first step now — become involved within your own institution and through widespread collective efforts.

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