The Future of Higher Education Is Social Impact / L’avenir de l’enseignement supérieur, c’est l’impact social

That’s the title of a post from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). The author calls for university research to become more responsive to community needs. The Research Impact Canada universities seem to be way ahead of the curve, at least where US universities are concerned.

C’est le titre d’un billet publié par la Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). L’auteur exhorte la recherche universitaire à mieux s’arrimer aux besoins de la communauté. On dirait bien que les universités du Réseau Impact Recherche Canada ont quelques longueurs d’avance, du moins par rapport aux universités étatsuniennes.

On May 18, 2018 Adam Gamoran (@agamoran), president of the William T. Grant Foundation, wrote about the need for university research (hence researchers) to become active players in creating social impacts. He writes, “Despite innovation in the content of research, research institutions in the social sciences have not been innovative when it comes to ensuring that the outside world uses research. Yet such innovation may be the key to social impact, and thus demonstrating the value of research to those who question its worth.”

This is the job of Research Impact Canada. We are 16 Canadian universities plus the University of Brighton (UK) experimenting with different forms of institutional supports and services to connect science to society so that research is not only responsive to “community” (i.e. industry, government, civil society) needs but is also partnered with community so that research can help inform new solutions to persistent social, economic and environmental challenges.

I think the William T. Grant Foundation can learn a thing or two from Research Impact Canada (RIC). The Foundation released a call for applications to its Institutional Challenge Grant program which “calls on universities to partner with a public agency or nonprofit, develop a joint research agenda, provide research fellows to execute the research, and build the capacity of the agency to use evidence from research in its decisionmaking.” The successful project was a community campus collaboration focused on the opioid crisis. That’s great but it isn’t really an example of an institution wide effort to connect researchers/students to community organizations. This was a single project, not an institutional support structure that benefits researchers across disciplines and partners across sectors.

Ultimately, pursuing positive social impact by harnessing the talent and knowledge of university faculty can turn around perceptions of the value of higher education. But faculty will need to become more fully engaged in directly responding to real-world problems.”

The institution is the missing piece in this equation. The US has some exemplars such as the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), led by the University of Missouri Connector. These are focused on engagement of research with local communities that may or may not be responding proactively to community needs. But these are institutional efforts, not single projects.

The goals of the William T. Grant Foundation are great but the focus of this program was on an individual project not on the underlying connecting infrastructure. There are great examples in the US and Canada where this infrastructure is being built. NABI and RIC are already collaborating and we’re happy to share what we are learning with the William T. Grant Foundation.

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