What Are Universities Doing for Social R&D? / Que font les universités pour la RD dans le domaine social?

David Phipps was invited to participate in a retreat to explore ways of introducing social research & development into Canada’s innovation policies. He reflected on the long tradition of university research and the relatively recent experience at partnering to develop that research into impacts on society. Thanks to Social Innovation Generation, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and all the participants for making the retreat possible.

David Phipps a été invité à effectuer une retraite pour réfléchir aux différents moyens d’intégrer la recherche sur le domaine social et son développement aux politiques canadiennes concernant l’innovation. Cela lui a permis de mettre en rapport la tradition séculaire de la recherche universitaire et l’expérience relativement récente des partenariats visant à transformer cette recherche en impact sur la société. Merci à Social Innovation Generation, à la Fondation de la famille J.W. McConnell et à tous les participants qui ont rendu possible ce moment de réflexion.

University of Bologna

University of Bologna

Picture this: Bologna, Italy in the year 1088. The first and still oldest western university was founded. That was 968 years ago. Oxford University was founded 8 years later in 1096.

Universities have had almost a millennium of teaching and research and only recently (ok, as far back as the 1880s for US land grant universities) have universities and the researchers that work in them been asked to consider the potential social impacts of their work. The trouble is, universities have also had almost a millennium to become really resistant to change. After all, universities were established as places for research and teaching without the pressure of external influences.

But only in the last ten years in Canada have researchers been required to develop a knowledge mobilization plan (SSHRC) or a knowledge translation plan (CIHR). Since 2014, UK institutions have been assessed and financially rewarded based on economic, social and/or environmental impacts of their research. It is through knowledge mobilization/translation that research(ers) can have an impact. And when research informs a new social policy or social service then that research(er) is contributing to social R&D – research & development.

Academic researchers do research (R in R&D). They rarely do development (D in R&D). If universities are now expected to contribute to social R&D we have to do that by working in collaboration. Researchers don’t make products, industry partners do. Researchers don’t develop public policies, government partners do. And researchers don’t (usually) deliver social services, community partners do.

If universities are now expected to contribute to social R&D we need development partners to complement our research. This isn’t new – Bowen & Graham wrote about this in 2013 and Sarah Morton wrote about this in 2014. What is new (unless you’re a land grant university with a 140-year tradition of agricultural extension!) is that some universities, including those in the ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) network, are developing institutional mechanisms to enhance the contribution of research to development and ultimately impact.

There are many ways we do this including investments in public engagement, community service learning, community based research and engaged scholarship all of which can be understood to fall under the umbrella of knowledge mobilization (and if you want to have the definitional debate feel free – just not here – we don’t get stuck in definitional dystopia).

One example of research responding to a need identified by community and creating both academic and community benefits is York’s example of the Life Skills Mentoring Program at the Youth Emergency Shelter of Peterborough. You can see a short video of this example or read the deep case study in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

And there are many more examples from the RIR universities including the seven we presented on Parliament Hill in February 2014.

It is working.

Canadian research is successfully contributing to social R&D. Yet while Canadian researchers have a long track record of engaging with non-academic partners the institutional commitment to social R&D is less robust. Notwithstanding the 30 years’ experience institutions have investing in commercialization / technology transfer / industry liaison, the institutional investments for knowledge mobilization and related activities are not yet wide spread.

The RIR universities are 12 examples of these different investments.

It is working.

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