Because discovery and invention advance humanity,
and understanding empowers us to adapt. We naturally support the ideas we believe will benefit us most.
As a communicator, I approach these challenges and opportunities through language.
Yeah, but why now?
Because seismic shifts are rocking the funding landscape, from shrinking and unpredictable government resources to the changing demands of investor-donors to, on the positive side, emerging and innovative approaches to funding. Attracting investment for the discovery process, and sustaining it through to applied understanding, requires being able to engage others in the relevance and impact of research.
Here's one reason
Here's another reason
Still not convinced? Read on!
Join me in a thought exercise. Imagine a post-government world. This has many implications, but let's consider one: the end of government funding for research. While a post-government world might seem far-fetched, we are already seeing the beginnings of what the end of government funding might look like for research in America.
We have entered an era where, for the first time since World War II, the federal government no longer funds a majority of the basic research in the US. A relentless drive for innovation has pushed funding for fundamental research, alongside applied and developmental, into the corporate domain. Today, businesses spend $3 on research to every $1 spent by the government. Universities and private foundations are also picking up a larger share of the research tab, amounting to 25% of the total dollars spent in 2015, up from 17% in 1995. In a post-government world, research will be funded by the private sector.
While this may be an obvious conclusion, we are in no way prepared for the obvious outcome. The bulk of our research ecosystem is built around government grants: applying for them, securing them, monitoring them, reporting on them, reapplying for them, and around we go. A 2012 faculty workload survey reported that researchers at universities spend 42% of their research time on administrative duties. We have built a sprawling hydroelectric power plant around a river that is now a stream and becoming a trickle.
If we follow the trend lines, our heads turn toward industry and philanthropy to provide the current that sparks innovation. This requires conversing in a language that researchers are only beginning to speak. While Tech Transfer is seen by many universities as a means to increased revenue and industry partnership, 73% of these offices fail to break even and only 5% of all patents filed are ever licensed or commercialized. Peer-reviewed scholarship, once the measure of impact, falls on deaf ears even in scholarly circles: 82% of humanities articles are never even cited.
This points to a gap between where we are now and where we need to be in the event of a post-government world. At a time when academics and researchers should be building strong relationships in the private sector, we are seeing an all-time low opinion of universities, at least along partisan lines, with only 36% of republicans in a recent Pew Research poll agreeing that universities have a positive impact on the country's direction. This reveal prompted a panel of university leaders to acknowledge the failure of universities to promote public understanding. Even on campuses, an important conduit to the public, fundraisers and alumni engagement professionals – often grouped together under the banner of advancement – are viewed by many faculty with suspicion, disdain or disregard.
To get to where we need to be, we must start a new conversation, first among ourselves as members of the academic community and then outwardly as members of society where we will engage with corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, bold philanthropists and collective citizen-donors. As Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann has challenged her scientific colleagues, "if we aren't part of that dialogue, if we aren't part of shaping public perception and personal belief," then facts won't matter.