Is University Research Missing What Matters Most?


This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education is being published here as a courtesy for readers of Grand Challenges News.

Eleni Linos and David M. Young are professors at the same prestigious research university, both developing innovations that could save lives.

Dr. Young, a professor of surgery at the University of California at San Francisco, leads a team making a product — an electronic bandage that could alert patients to potentially fatal infections. He is being helped by multimillion-dollar federal programs, and the work is expected to turn into a company and, hopefully, a profit for his institution.

Dr. Linos, an assistant professor of medicine, is testing a behavioral intervention — using Internet ads to convince teenage girls that tanning salons pose a deadly danger. But her work has no market value, meaning no product will come from it. So she supports it with her own salary and some donated assistance, and she will probably be paid back with little more than a sense of accomplishment.

The experiences of the two doctors reflect a growing divide in university research. On the one side, cash-strapped universities, bolstered by sympathetic government policies and public and private grant programs, are working hard to develop ways of monetizing their research. The latest annual numbers from the Association of University Technology Managers show good results: a 12-percent increase in start-up companies in 2014, a 17-percent gain in commercial licenses, and a 34-percent surge in new products — all while federal support for research fell 5 percent.

On the other side, when research applications don’t involve products, patents, and profits, the record can be tougher to quantify. Academic research endorses physical activity and warns against economic divides, but obesity and wide disparities in opportunity persist. Dozens of university studies examine conflict resolution, but the United States still engages in wars. Other well-studied but seemingly intractable societal troubles include pervasive violence, mental stress, environmental toxins, and educational underachievement.

In short, university scientists have shown they’re good at turning research into products, and they’re getting better by the day. But are researchers, and their funders, making the same effort to translate the work of greatest benefit to society?

In their official statement of purpose, the nation’s top research universities describe themselves as committed to "innovation, scholarship, and solutions." When moving from innovation to solutions, however, they recognize that researchers confront an increasingly obvious limitation. "Let’s face it: Money drives a lot of behavior, whether you like it or not," said Tobin L. Smith, vice president for policy at the research group, the Association of American Universities.

Money, of course, does matter. According to the latest National Science Foundation data, three fields — biological sciences, medical sciences, and engineering — accounted for about two-thirds of the $64 billion in total academic research-and-development spending in 2014. Various social sciences — fields that could play a huge role in turning research into policy — accounted for only about $2.2 billion, and psychology for $1.1 billion. But examine factors across academe, and you'll find money is not the only barrier to university researchers’ bringing their findings into the real world. Often their attempts to do so are compromised by personal, professional, political, and institutional imperatives and traditions.

Some researchers feel that their job is in the lab, not outside it. Many universities still reward and promote based largely on publication rather than public accomplishment. Public and private funders of research rarely step back to comprehensively and scientifically ask which projects and approaches would make the biggest difference for the most people, without first having set some kind of constraint such as a field of study or type of disease.

In some instances, such as Dr. Young’s electronic "smart bandage," the academic world seems increasingly enthused to help derive real-world benefit from the federal government’s $40-billion annual expenditure on university research. The electronic bandages could help prevent bedsores, which affect some 2.5 million people a year in the United States at an estimated cost of $11 billion.

But in other instances, such as Dr. Linos’s campaign against tanning salons — which are believed responsible for 400,000 new cases of skin cancer each year in the United States — the academic structures seem decidedly less friendly.

It’s a result of not being truly attuned to what matters most in university research, said Sandro Galea, dean and professor of public health at Boston University. "We have veered away from keeping our eye on the prize," Dr. Galea said. "And the prize is paying attention to why we’re doing what we’re doing."

It’s not hard to find researchers who share that view. There’s Eli Berman, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, who spends his own time and money trekking to Washington in the hope that someone dealing with wars, insurgencies, and human trafficking might make use of insights compiled by the university's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

Or Utpal M. Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University, who studies how measuring people’s capacity for self-control can be helpful in assessing the effects of public policies. He says he feels far more pressure from his institution to publish his findings than to figure out ways to implement them.

There’s Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College who builds party games that subtly incorporate lessons on social biases and stereotypes. She has found university technology-transfer offices uninterested in helping her build connections to major companies and advertisers.

There's even David H. Guston, a professor of politics and global studies at Arizona State University who studies the societal implications of nanoscale science. ASU is perhaps the nation’s most aggressively outcomes-oriented institution, and yet Mr. Guston still sees much inertia behind promotion systems that reward faculty for publishing rather than making progress toward a specific public benefit.

The 200 largest universities in the United States all have technology-transfer offices that promise financial returns for important, marketable discoveries, Mr. Guston said. "But there are a whole host of things that are important that may not have markets," he said.

Universities and their researchers now face heavy and growing pressure to financially justify their decisions. And that can steer them away from choices that can’t be connected to definable profits, grants, or publications with known academic value. Universities and funders of science could respond to those expanded market pressures by rewarding scientists who work societal problems all the way through to a solution, said Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit research center in Seattle that works on policy-implementation strategies. But too often, Mr. Durning said, they reinforce discipline-centered hierarchies that encourage researchers to specialize, not to embrace the "integrative problem-solving" that can make a difference in most real-world contexts. "It’s an enormous problem," he said.

While some university leaders concede the point, they often can’t agree on who is responsible for breaking out of narrow discipline-based metrics. At a conference last year on academic engagement in public and political discourse, the presidents of two leading research institutions, Teresa A. Sullivan of the University of Virginia and Mark S. Schlissel of the University of Michigan, both said they had surprisingly little ability to change faculty reward structures to better emphasize cross-departmental problem-solving.

"Departments have their own culture and customs," said Ms. Sullivan.

"University presidents are less powerful than you think," Mr. Schlissel added.

Without help from the top, even change- minded researchers can feel stuck. A few institutions, like Arizona State, now seek to reward an outcomes-based record of accomplishments, largely by placing professors in multidisciplinary institutes rather than departmental silos. But it’s still risky to base a career on that approach when most institutions still value more-traditional measures like publications, said Braden R. Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at ASU. Mentors of junior faculty and graduate students should be careful about "getting them involved in projects that their peers aren’t going to recognize as academically valid," Mr. Allenby said.

Ronald F. Levant, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron, knows that very well. A former president of the American Psychological Association, Mr. Levant studies male adherence to traditional masculine norms, and the ways in which that can fuel a wide range of societal problems.

One of the most frustrating examples: Working-class men can impoverish themselves by refusing to abandon the pursuit of jobs such as steelworker and trucker for alternatives such as child care, elder care, and food preparation — occupations that are stereotypically associated with women.

Ideally, Mr. Levant said, he’d find partners outside his academic field to develop and test public-education campaigns that might help poorly educated, working-class men throw off "the shackles of traditional masculinity."

"I wouldn’t know where to turn," Mr. Levant said, "but I would love to do that." But, he added, "I don’t think anybody in my academic institution would be receptive to it, because it’s not really defined as part of our mission."

One prime target for blame is Congress. Universities and funders might want to be more aggressive in confronting the behavioral factors behind so many social problems, but many academic leaders say they’re deterred by the current political climate.

The leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, in particular, has waged a dedicated campaign against the social sciences. More broadly, lawmakers who exert influence over research-funding priorities tend to respond to pressure from patient advocates, who are naturally more interested in cures than in societywide preventions.

Private foundations also have limitations. As with lawmakers, foundations are often responsive to patient-advocacy groups that emphasize cures over prevention. And deep-pocketed foundations usually come with defined missions.

The world’s largest private foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, sets its funding priorities largely based on where it thinks it could have the greatest effect, said a spokesman, Christopher Williams, but the personal interests of the founders also play an important role in project selection. Another large foundation that emphasizes research, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, established by Intel’s co-founder, Gordon E. Moore, lists its four priority areas as science, conservation, patient care, and the Bay Area. "We have to focus, and so we do," said Robert P. Kirshner, the foundation’s chief program officer for science.

The kind of patchwork approach to funding can pose a problem: Government agencies and foundations support meaningful work, but they also leave much potentially-vital research to slip through the cracks. Could universities and their advocates join with private donors and draft a plan for addressing the major societal problems that don’t or won’t get addressed by Congress? It’s possible, said Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, the nation’s largest academic and industry partnership for promoting scientific research funding. But that does not appear likely to happen, said Ms. Woolley, who has led Research!America for 25 years. "It is a matter of convincing the folks that have deep pockets and patience," she said.

The idea of using science to measure one social goal against a range of others deserving of research raises many major difficulties, said Mr. Kirshner, a former professor of science and astrophysicist at Harvard. Obstacles cited by Mr. Kirshner and others include the difficulty of making feasibility comparisons across fields, putting values on human life and the natural world, and predicting variables that could change priorities in the future.

Still, it’s worth trying to rank social problems as a way of keeping campus researchers on target, said Fred H. Cate, vice president for research and manager of the new Grand Challenges program at Indiana University.

The Grand Challenges concept is a loosely defined framework that some universities are using to tackle major scientific problems with potentially broad applications. Indiana, for example, has pledged to spend at least $300 million over five years on as many as five projects that Mr. Cate and his team will choose later this year. "It would be very helpful to have an empirical way of determining the magnitude of problems that we could address in the university research community," Mr. Cate said.

Some lawmakers agree. "If the scientific community concludes via peer-reviewed research there is a process by which to determine what science would be most valuable for the federal government/taxpayers to fund, Congress would be obliged to consider," said Zachary Kurz, a spokesman for Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican serving as chairman of the House science committee, in a written comment.

The government has shown it can be creative in encouraging real-world applications of science, when it wants to be. One of the most ambitious such efforts is the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a $660-million division of the National Institutes of Health established in 2011 largely to speed the development of pharmaceuticals from lab discoveries.

But the NIH has no comparable translational effort outside of drugs, and doesn’t feel one is necessary. "In the many other spheres that NIH operates, I think that goes on naturally," said Lawrence A. Tabak, the NIH’s principal deputy director, "and I’m not sure that one would need any additional catalyst, as NCATS has been."

Another example is the Innovation Corps, a boot-camp-like program for teaching university scientists to behave more like entrepreneurs that was adopted by the National Science Foundation in 2011 and has since spread to the NIH and other federal sponsors of research.

That project favors interventions that involve products — one version of the I-Corps curriculum helped Dr. Young and his team market their electronic bandage. The NSF, however, just awarded a grant to the University of Texas at Austin to figure out ways that it might adapt the I-Corps approach to help researchers pursue public-policy goals.

That kind of thinking is being encouraged across the Obama administration. The White House is especially intrigued by a public-policy strategy known as "nudging," put forth by two university experts — Richard H. Thaler of the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein of Harvard, who led White House oversight of federal regulation earlier in the Obama administration — and has been busily incorporating behavioral-science insights into a range of federal activities.

The nudge concept blends research insights in areas such as psychology and behavioral science to create situations in which people are gently coaxed into making more-beneficial choices. Examples include painting targets inside men’s urinals to encourage cleaner floors and building rumble strips along highways to encourage inattentive drivers to stay in their lanes.

And the new Behavioral Science & Policy Association assembled more than 200 researchers and practitioners this past summer for its inaugural conference, sharing tips on the value of such nudge-like interventions as text-message homework reminders for students and truthfulness affirmations placed at the beginning of tax returns rather than the end.

"We’re on the cusp of the transformation from behavioral economics, which is still young and rapidly developing, to the broader and more appropriate frame of behavioral public policy," said one member of the association’s advisory board, Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

Just nudging, however, may not be enough for major societal challenges. "Nudges ain’t going to do it on big policy issues," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "Economists have been trying for years to figure out promising ways of regulating without regulating, but it’s mostly small beer."

Again, politics — or at least the perception of politics — stands as a major obstacle to valuable translational research. When an issue reaches a certain level of public ferment, many researchers regard it as politically out of bounds. "There’s a line," said Andrew J. Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "And you want to be careful not to cross it as an academic, or you move into the field of advocacy."

Yet if politics is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, there’s little agreement on where to draw that line. Cancer can be political, given that people may disagree over its probable causes or the best methods of fighting it. Few researchers, however, abstain from the war on cancer for political reasons.

It may end up taking a new generation of scientists to redraw the lines of acceptability. That generation includes Nik Sawe, a doctoral student in environmental sciences at Stanford University, whose research uses sophisticated brain-scanning technology to help understand whether and why people really believe what they say they believe.

If that approach proves reliable, Mr. Sawe said, it could have obvious uses in policy making. But within the university setting, he said, the pressure is far stronger to publish papers describing the science than to find places to actually use it. "There’s still enough old guard that has that older view, which is, Do the research and leave that translational thing to someone else," he said.

Dr. Linos did not have that attitude. After her work on the health risks of indoor tanning beds won her front-page coverage last January in The New York Times, she quickly realized that major professional accomplishment would do little to catch the attention of all the teenage girls in need of warnings.

"I was frustrated," Dr. Linos said, "that I kept on writing papers, publishing papers, getting them into big journals, and then feeling like it wasn’t actually doing anything to change behavior."

That urge to have her research make an actual difference in people’s lives led Dr. Linos to Google. Colleagues in Silicon Valley had told her that the Internet giant offered free advertising space to academics and nonprofit organizations, and she wanted to see if that might help deliver her research findings more directly to those who needed to know about them.

So she set up an account with Google, and began testing ads that would appear alongside the results for anyone searching for terms such as "tanning," "tanning bed," and "tanning salon." In the space of a few weeks, the ads were shown 235,000 times and generated more than 2,000 user clicks — a success rate generally considered sufficient for commercial advertisements.

It was just an initial experiment, done without any outside grant support, she said. For her next step, Dr. Linos would like to find grant money — she’s putting together an application for the National Institutes of Health — and hire a marketing expert who knows how to write the ads. Eventually she’d like to work with many more social-media platforms.

But it’s not clear the NIH or anyone else would support such an interdisciplinary attempt to solving a medical problem, even if her research suggests it could be crucial to helping girls avoid skin cancer. The scientists reviewing these grants are used to seeing different types of grant proposals, Dr. Linos said. "But I’ll try it."

Younger researchers willing to pursue similar attempts might ultimately make a major difference. Those scholars are part of a "sea change" that could eventually leave university research more focused on solving the world’s most important problems, said Mr. Smith, of the AAU. "These people don’t just want to go out and publish work in some arcane journal," he said. "They want to do something that matters."

Correction (1/26/2016, 2:56 p.m.): This article originally included an incorrect middle initial, "E.," for Mary Woolley of Research!America. She uses no middle initial.

View the original story on the The Chronicle of Higher Education website