RESEARCHERS ARE KEENLY AWARE that their work matters far beyond their achievements within the academy. Discoveries in Earth sciences, for example, allow us to predict dangerous weather events. Breakthroughs in engineering such as airbags help protect passengers in cars. Findings in medicine have slowed the spread of HIV. Agricultural researchers are working to sustain our food supply in a rapidly changing climate. These and countless other fields of study not only improve our lives, they very often save them.
Most researchers came to their chosen discipline full of curiosity and passion. But that passion, that inspiring spark, can be left behind in the publish-or-perish grind toward promotion and tenure. To weave that motivating mission into the fabric of academic evaluation, we need to add progressive mechanisms that consider the value researchers add to society through their discoveries, innovations, partnerships and public engagement. This is not a purely benevolent proposal. On the contrary. Charting the path from research impact to broader benefit would enhance the competitiveness of proposals and strengthen Oregon State’s research enterprise in this time of ever-increasing scrutiny over public funding.
Early in their careers, faculty may get advice to avoid activities that could expose and expand the impact of their work, such as engaging underserved youth in the scientific process or bringing research to bear on public policy. Such activities may be viewed as distractions from publishing for peers and citation metrics, which count heavily in the tenure process — so much that a researcher may risk job loss if he or she has not demonstrated success on such narrowly conceived measures.
Here at Oregon State University, a land grant institution, we need to do more than research about things that matter to us. We are obligated to make research matter for society. Toward that end, we need to find ways not only to nurture researchers’ love of discovery, but also to fuel their drive toward solutions to the world’s most wicked problems. We need to meaningfully connect these solutions to the broader public. We need to ignite young minds with the sense of wonder that inspires scientific inquiry.
It’s essential to help faculty transcend the rat race, to create something new, to grow research impacts from the set of underlying principles that burn in the heart of each researcher. We should encourage investigators to unveil their “impact identities” and establish career-long societally relevant goals. Let’s commit to linking researchers to the web of partners who can assemble and deploy appropriate evidence-based tools to transform impact goals into realities.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to empower faculty to focus on passion and action in the world is the prospect of an awe-inspiring professoriate with an infectious love of discovery to shape the minds of students on their way to becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
Julie Risien is the associate director of the OSU Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning. She also serves as faculty lead for the new OSU Research Impacts Network. A graduate of the Oregon State College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Risien is on the steering committee for the National Alliance for Broader Impacts funded by the National Science Foundation.