The Importance of Validating Faculty Research

Far too often, researchers’ scholarly and creative achievements simply become lines on curriculum vitae, argue Scott Slovic and Janet E. Nelson, who offer recommendations for change.

September 4, 2019

Mainstream popular culture, including movies like A Beautiful Mind and On the Basis of Sex, typically suggests that university researchers seek discoveries in pursuit of grand recognition and earthshaking social change. While few researchers would eschew such achievements, most pursue their daily efforts at the lab bench or, most often, at the computer screen with humbler yet no less meaningful goals: the discovery of new knowledge that will advance particular disciplines and incrementally reach toward societal value.

Only a handful of academic research receives worldly recognition. In contrast to the work that receives Nobel Prizes, most scientific reports and literary papers disappear into technical journals or dissipate into the ether as presentations at academic meetings. More than 7,000 people attended January’s Modern Language Association convention in Chicago, while some 24,000 scientists -- and the occasional artist and journalist -- participated in the annual gathering of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. The purpose of such meetings is to share ideas and strengthen professional networks. But the attention and the information itself can also be ephemeral, hanging in the air during a 12-minute presentation and then gone forever (or tucked away in the notebooks of listeners).

And back at researchers’ home institutions, there is often vanishingly little acknowledgment of the ideas that they have presented to colleagues at national and international meetings -- just as there is often scant recognition of journal publications or even new books, other than the hope of increasing the author’s h-index. In fact, the average journal article evokes no response at all, except from the occasional colleague working on precisely the same topic for another article that will enjoy a similar fate.

If a book -- or an article -- is published and nobody notices, why does it matter? As the saying goes, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to listen, does it actually make a sound? This philosophical thought experiment, attributed to George Berkeley’s 1710 Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, takes on new meaning in the context of contemporary efforts by research administrators to encourage excitement and productivity among scholars across the many academic disciplines at higher education institutions. All too frequently, large grants are recognized for the economic infusions they bring to universities, but the fascinating and societally valuable insights of the actual research take a back seat to the dollar amounts featured in the headlines of campus publications.

Rather than encouraging ambitious and energetic future research, the usual practice of recognizing -- or ignoring -- scholarly achievement often has the unintentional effect of dampening research activity. Researchers and scholars, who must juggle their scientific or artistic investigations with teaching and administrative responsibilities, often conduct their studies under the pressure of bringing in money to the institution. (They are expected, for example, to report the titles of publications, journals and publishers who produce the work, and the amounts of new grant money, at the end of each calendar year.) Or they perform their research out of a kind of unspoken jealousy. (If a colleague down the hall has just published a new book, one yearns to keep up -- but this is seldom talked about explicitly.) Or they do so with a sense of private calling but with little expectation of community support or even interest.

From SAS Talks to Coffee Conversations

In short, far too often, researchers’ scholarly and creative achievements simply become lines on curriculum vitae. But college and university campuses throughout the United States and across the globe abound with beautiful minds -- with thoughtful and articulate scholars who aspire to make new discoveries, conceptualize elegant formulas and create mind-expanding paintings and musical compositions. Research offices can and should directly support this work and buoy the spirits -- and productivity -- of scientists, scholars and artists in every field of study through specific programs.

At the University of Idaho, a public, land-grant university, we are working to encourage research efforts through several focused initiatives, and the results have been rapid and significant.

For instance, we have organized Short and Sweet, or SAS, research talks, which began in the fall of 2017 and have occurred three times on the Moscow, Idaho, campus. Each time, nine or 10 scholars from fields ranging from civil engineering to applied linguistics have shared their work with campuswide audiences in a variation of the “PechaKucha”/lightning-talk format (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide -- or a total of six minutes and 40 seconds). The Office of Research and Economic Development coordinates these events, working closely with deans and other campus leaders throughout the university system. Of particular importance is the time and effort that goes into training researchers to craft vibrant, insightful and, most of all, succinct introductions to their research.

The response to presentations has been visceral and immediate. The events feature extended half-hour intermissions and post-presentation receptions with food and drinks and strong encouragement for attendees to mingle and network with fellow researchers and, especially, with the day’s presenters. One recent speaker, music historian Carol Padgham Albrecht, who studies forgotten, less renowned figures (many of them women) of the 18th-century Viennese musical scene, wrote after her talk, “What a great honor and joy it was to be selected for one of the SAS talks on global research. It was a spectacular event, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the talks.” For the typical university researcher, this is what counts as grand recognition: a chance to speak for seven minutes or so about one’s passion for a particular area of investigation.

The speakers for one of the recent SAS events were identified through our new International Research Survey (see our article “Capturing and Catalyzing Global Reach,” NCURA Magazine, January 2019). The data we’ve collected about researchers studying human milk nutritional composition in Ghana, water pipeline leaks in Hong Kong and the social meaning of country homes (dachas) in Ukraine have also resulted in informal conversational gatherings on our campus among researchers with common interests in different regions of the world.

Some of these gatherings may produce tangible new research collaborations, such as the work of the Confluence Lab in the environmental humanities, which emerged last fall from an informal “coffee conversation” supported by the research office more than a year ago. But the more immediate goal of our efforts through the international research survey, the SAS events and the coffee conversations is to promote a culture of research at the university as a way of energizing and exciting the community. In tandem with high-level administrative support of these activities, such grassroots efforts are creating communities of scholars and bringing together individuals who might otherwise never have crossed paths.

Most university researchers do not seek celebrity or monumental impact. For most, six minutes and 40 seconds to present a salient introduction to an intellectual passion, such as noninvasive DNA testing of tiger poop in Nepal as a way of tracking and conserving an endangered species, is encouragement enough -- and the opportunity to belong to a vibrant community of fellow researchers.

The role of offices of research administration is not only to facilitate sponsored projects, important as that may be, but also to sponsor community. The pursuit of research funding and the pursuit of a mutually encouraging community of scholars and artists must go hand in hand.


Scott Slovic is professor of literature and environment, professor of natural resources and society, and faculty fellow in the Office of Research and Economic Development at the University of Idaho. His latest publication is The Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication. Janet E. Nelson is the vice president for research and economic development at the University of Idaho. She is a 2018 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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