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Communicating the Value of University Research When Science is Under Attack

Communications has critical role in making the case for investment in research

April 6, 2017
 
 

Last week we attended the Association of American Universities’ annual conference of the Public Affairs Network. This group, which includes the leaders of communications and public affairs from 62 leading research universities, frequently discusses the best ways to communicate about university research and higher education more broadly.

The dialogue is particularly urgent this year in light of recent attacks on science, efforts to close off international exchange, and proposals to sharply cut federal funding for agencies that support science and medical research.

Our hope is that universities will see the current climate as a call to marshal our best arguments and our most effective allies, in business and in public life, to make the strongest possible case for public investment in research.

We offer a few key elements necessary to communicate to the public and policymakers about the value of university-based research, and how it leads directly to innovation, economic growth, jobs, and life-improving discoveries that make a difference for us all.

Strong leadership voices

University presidents can provide powerful thought leadership, and their voices are important to inform the public dialogue as well as to engage key stakeholders and allies. 

For example, in her statement on the potential impact of the Trump Administration’s proposed budget, AAU President Mary Sue Coleman noted that federal investments in research and higher education “have paid enormous dividends in medical advancements, new technologies, and enhanced national security, and helped to produce high-wage American jobs and the most talented workforce in the world.”

Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, recently wrote in the Washington Post on the importance of open borders for innovation. “American innovation has been the envy of the world for the last century,” he wrote. “Our ability to discover scientific breakthroughs, invent disruptive technologies and build successful companies that make those advances broadly available has been unparalleled. ”

Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president, wrote an insightful essay in the Christian Science Monitor underscoring this idea. He highlighted the positive benefits in economic impact and global savvy the United States reaps from international students who study here (including, in the example he uses, entrepreneur Elon Musk). 

And Linda Hicke, dean of natural sciences at the University of Texas, wrote in the Dallas Morning News about the role of basic research in bettering human life. “Today, as a result of [University of Texas] research and a partnership with a private company, the world now has a new drug to prevent and treat inhalation anthrax,” she wrote.

More compelling stories of real-world impact on real people

Dean Hicke’s op-ed is a good example of addressing one of the most challenging parts of communicating about university-based research: making it real for people. Images of men and women in goggles and lab coats can be barriers to understanding what the work is all about, and why it matters. We love the illustrated approach the AAU has taken to demonstrate the university research behind something as ubiquitous as our smart phones.

The AAU also has used this technique to illustrate how basic federal funding supports our military preparedness and the founding of companies like Google.

We hope to see more vibrant, multi-media and social media approaches to research storytelling that help the public make a clear connection between science funding, university-based research and positive outcomes for our nation’s competitiveness, economy and quality of life.

Connecting the dots between university research, job creation and economic benefit

Universities must do everything possible to document and articulate how the research and teaching enterprise benefits local, state and national economies. This has been a challenge in the past: We have hosts of economic impact studies that, while important, do not always tell the story concretely enough or with sufficient impact for a lay or policymaker audience. 

We are intrigued with the work of the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science (IRIS), whose website describes its mission this way:

[IRIS] provides credible data and rigorous findings about the productivity and public value of the research enterprise to inform effective policy-making, support outreach, aid in research management, and expand the state of knowledge.

IRIS researchers use rigorous, data-rich analyses to accurately track and report higher ed outcomes, often in data visualization form such as this map tracking county-level purchases made by eight Midwest public research universities as part of the research enterprise. The map illustrates that between the third quarter of 2013 and the second quarter of 2014, the campuses included the analysis spent over $1.76 billion to purchase goods and services from vendors in 1,750 counties across the United States. (This analysis was part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Lincoln Project.)

Forming partnerships and alliances to better leverage the power of the collective

Along with leadership voices, better storytelling and concrete data about job creation and other economic benefits, we believe in the power of partnerships, alliances and collectives to help positively influence policy makers and the public.

More than 10 years ago in the state of Michigan, for example, the three research-intensive universities joined forces as the University Research Corridor. The URC’s goals: to collaborate more effectively and collectively gather data about the sum total of the three universities’ economic impact on the state and how the URC’s research impacted sectors of the state’s economy in annual white paper-style reports. It is a powerful story, especially in the aggregate, with $2.1 billion of R&D spending in 2015.

Or let’s think about the power of a university like Carnegie Mellon, with its premier programs in computer science, engineering, and artificial intelligence, to attract and partner with companies like Google, Apple and Ford. More than 500 high-powered new jobs have come to Pittsburgh as a direct result of the Google partnership alone, and that is just one of more than 350 such industry partnerships at Carnegie Mellon, according to Steve Kloehn, vice president for communications and marketing.

These are precisely the kinds of impacts that we think universities should be more aggressive about promoting with a wide range of audiences.

When our universities work together in the collective, and when they reach out to the business and non-profit communities to form important alliances, they can demonstrate the critical roles that higher education and university research play in business competitiveness, job growth, and improvements in our communities and our quality of life.

Lisa M. Rudgers and Julie A. Peterson are co-founders of Peterson Rudgers Group, a consulting firm focused on higher education strategy, leadership and brand.

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