Skip Navigation
Projects & Initiatives
Bethany R. Johns, Ph.D.
Director, Research Policy

Ny'lyjah Cain
Program Associate, STEM Education & Research Policy

Public Impact Research

APLU Impact

  • Supporting public universities undertaking Public Impact Research to address intractable societal challenges such as addiction, environmental sustainability, and global hunger.
  • Developing best practices for Public Impact Research. 
  • Encouraging institutions to incorporate fundamental research into their Public Impact Research.

Image of PIR report cover.In November 2019, APLU unveiled its Public Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference report. The report is the result of a year of work by over 60 university leaders. Drawing on the group's work, the report issues five action steps for the public university community and stakeholders to advance public impact research (PIR). Several appendices to the report are currently under final development. They will be added to this page as soon as they are finalized.

The PIR group recommends the use of PIR as a broad label to describe how university research improves lives and serves society—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Using PIR consistently along with fundamental discovery and training the next generation workforce communicates powerfully to the public the value of university research and could help restore public trust in our institutions.

University research from the arts and humanities to the social and natural 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. Research and related technology development continue to alter our lives and offer opportunities that have never been greater for societal improvement such as with smart cities, artificial intelligence, personalized medication and healthcare, and the sustainable use of the ocean for economic development. However, national and global challenges have also increased while at the same time, public trust in our academic institutions is diminishing. As we face intense health emergencies, global climate change, and the challenge of providing national and international food security, universities are working to address these challenges in partnership with a wide range of organizations.

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.

Although the idea of PIR will be familiar to many higher education leaders and researchers (particularly to those working in Extension activities), the concept has not always been voiced or promoted explicitly or in a unified manner. In these troubled and challenging times, this report seeks to provide, in a clear and streamlined way, an explicit call to university leaders, faculty, and their partner stakeholders to act both individually, and collectively through APLU. Below are the report's five action steps for the public university community and stakeholders to advance public impact research.

  • 1. Adopt the overarching term "PIR" to better demonstrate value to the public.
    Integrate PIR into advocacy for government and private support, showing how PIR relies upon and feeds fundamental research.
    Contribute examples of how institutions and stakeholders use PIR in their messaging.
  • 2. Conduct PIR more purposefully by adopting a variety of institutional approaches.
    – Identify PIR approaches that best reflect institutional and stakeholder cultures.
    – Adapt lessons from the experiences of other institutions, including international collaborations addressing global challenges.
  • 3. Engage stakeholders broadly and across the entire spectrum of PIR activities.
    – Before launching a PIR initiative, consider whether the program meets the test proposed by Kellogg Commission as the benchmark for an engaged institution and develop a plan for improving your engagement practices.
    – Identify key research strengths and how they align with important issues and needs within communities, with appropriate attention to special needs of diverse populations. Universities and partners ought to work closely with communities affected by these issues.
    – Work with partners to assess the cost of engagement as part of a PIR initiative and ensure that those costs are covered by project budgets.
    – Work with partners to develop goals for PIR initiatives and determine how progress toward those goals and the project’s community impact will be measured.
  • 4. Communicate about PIR to all stakeholders to convey significant public dividends.
    – Invest in communications, including human capital and dissemination tools.
    – Weave training for communication scholarship and impact to the public into the fabric of institutions.
    – Involve stakeholders (in content and, if possible, delivery) in highlighting the importance of PIR.
  • 5. Build specific campus and stakeholder structures and policies to encourage PIR.
    – Build commitment among potential funders for research that addresses important social issues.
    – Continue to change the disciplinary-publication-focus of faculty advancement guidelines. Incentivize transdisciplinary research through explicit funding of cross-college/cross-unit activities; examples include seed grants and provision of funds to the Vice President for Research to support transdisciplinary faculty hiring. Develop and share guidance for evaluating the quality and impact of non-traditional forms of academic outputs and work with stakeholders through APLU.
    – APLU and its member institutions should discuss with sponsors the possibility of using PIR and its associated typology as a means to provide consistent guidelines for measurement and evaluation of broader societal impacts.