News & Media

Why Public Impact Research Matters

By Sandra Brown

For the past 18 months, a group of 60 public university leaders has been examining how to advance university-based research that improves lives and benefits society. Today, the group unveils a new report, Public Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference, outlining its findings. The report issues recommendations to the public university community and stakeholders on how to move Public Impact Research (PIR) forward.

PIR is an overarching concept for a growing number of complementary labels for research activities and engagement, including Grand Challenges, Convergence, transdisciplinary and “HIBAR” (Highly Integrative Basic and Responsive) research, among others. Although these approaches differ in various attributes, they draw upon a deep understanding in specific areas of fundamental research to build new knowledge and engage with stakeholders to identify and address societal issues. Using “PIR” as an umbrella term will leverage these approaches to magnify the general public’s understanding of how universities partner with others to provide value to the public on issues of real interest and impact.

University research from the arts and humanities to the social and basic sciences has long been at the forefront of scientific, scholarly and creative efforts in the U.S., both leading the world in fundamental discoveries and responding powerfully to essential societal needs. Yet despite the critical role public universities have played driving progress around the world, there is considerable evidence that universities need to better communicate their publicly focused research in explicit and coherent ways.

While it is may be clear to those of us inside higher education that public universities have always engaged in this work through applied and translational research, it is also clear that the broader public is often unaware of the ways in which our research serves local, regional, national and global communities by addressing the most pressing problems we face. Using “PIR” consistently can help communicate to the public the value of the research universities conduct.

That value lies in the ability of research universities to address the most vexing challenges we face as a society. Climate change, public health crises such as the opioid epidemic, energy and food insecurity — all of these are deep-seated threats which can only be effectively addressed by bringing the best minds in the research community, the public sector and local communities together. This necessary collaborative framework is another reason we need to engage in Public Impact Research.

To advance the concept of PIR, the working group identified five actions for university leadership, faculty and their partner stakeholders:

  1. Adopt the overarching term “PIR” to refer to the wide variety of efforts our universities are making to bring fundamental and applied research together to solve the most demanding and significant problems of our time.
  2. Conduct PIR more purposefully by adopting a variety of institutional approaches that focus on broad participation and engagement, creation of new knowledge and understanding directed to public benefit, and deployment of research outcomes into the “real world.”
  3. Engage stakeholders broadly and across the entire spectrum of PIR activities to ensure that research strengths are aligned with community priorities.
  4. Communicate PIR to all stakeholders in order to build public understanding and engage community partners.
  5. Build specific campus and stakeholder structures and policies to incentivize and facilitate PIR, including funding strategies, tenure guidelines and institutional culture.

The promise of university-based research as a powerful force for good continues to grow: personalized medicine with the promise of treating disease; artificial intelligence that can boosts agriculture production; smart cities that can reduce crime and negative environmental impacts. These are just a few avenues universities are exploring through research.

Public impact research holds the potential to accelerate and multiply these efforts, but it is up to each university and community to work together to discover how best to implement PIR-focused practices. We hope today’s report sparks action enabling these critically important outcomes.
Sandra Brown, Ph.D. is Vice Chancellor for Research and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UC San Diego

  • Council on Research

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