Here’s my New Year’s resolution for higher education: extend the reach of research to the people.
Recently, universities and academics have begun to talk about open science (i.e., research practices used to enhance transparency from design to dissemination). There is a robust agenda for academia’s future, including code sharing, registered reports and accessibility.
It’s part of a growing recognition that research really belongs to the people. Even as the postsecondary industry opened its doors to become a more-accessible system for students, it locked up the research conducted by its faculty and staff. But it’s often individuals from outside of academia who construct topical questions of interest for scholars, serve as study participants, and fund organizations producing such work.
And yet, open science ambitions have cautions worth noting, such as the challenges of interpreting research publicly and the potential political misuse of study findings. To address this, higher education must revisit its roots in educating citizens, preparing both students for society and society for itself.
Throughout the pandemic, open science practices allowed universities to immerse themselves in the conversation. Beyond developing ways to combat the virus, openness allowed for swift exchanges of research between disciplines. For example, artificial intelligence tools surfaced to mine information from thousands of COVID-19-related papers. This helped the world track variants, test vaccines and cross-check findings.
It’s an example of why the postsecondary ecosystem has a duty to distribute research results widely. And with the available digital technology, circulating knowledge has gotten easier. However, nuance is needed in communicating conclusions and helping the public—and even leaders and experts—to understand them.
Sometimes, the literature on a given study topic is just mixed. For instance, since the first Coleman Report on educational opportunity was released in 1966, economists, sociologists, and other scholars have debated ad nauseam the empirical effects of school expenditures on student outcomes. If you ask any practitioner: Would additional resources help you improve student performance? The answer is likely to be “yes.” But we still don’t conclusively know the extent to which more money matters.
Those in the throes of studying school resources are very much aware of other scholarly perspectives. The public, less so. This is partly due to limited interest levels and competing priorities that many non-specialists have, plus the (in)digestibility of statistics used in research analyses.
Scholarly outlets have begun to address these challenges by incorporating highlights of key sections and executive summaries. These are great to emulate across disciplines. However, even if publications are user-friendly, there likely remains a small percentage of folks looking to read them.
So, if not academic articles, where are people getting information? With varying trust levels, they turn to journalists, social media influencers, legislators, teachers and their families. Since society predominantly consumes information through non-academic channels, consideration should be given to counting “citations” of academic work in public-interest sources, such as newspaper articles and officials’ speeches. For example, rankings of universities created by U.S. News & World Report and Times Higher Education take into account the research influence of higher ed institutions, but they only consider peer-review references. Perhaps those rankings could also calculate what the public digests. Once quantified that way, universities are incentivized to spread their research findings further.
Colleges could also provide pro-bono presentations. Sending a rotation of colleagues to communities for conversations would enable lay people to ask questions and gain accurate insight on pressing issues. Universities already offer lectures and panels on campuses during the school year, so why not partner with the local churches, libraries and youth centers to co-host such events? These could even be virtual town halls.
What about individuals with limited literacy, who lack technological capabilities, or are just busy? Attending yet another event is tough with a full calendar. Universities still owe them. Likely, an indirect route is best for those that are otherwise occupied. I realize there are environmental concerns, but printing pamphlets and postcards for those that do attend events—to be passed on to those that don’t—could educate and better sustain the public good. This suggestion may sound simple, and in many ways, it is.
Ensuring those in remote and low-income locales receive the tools to ultimately understand the ramifications of research should be required. Eventually, colleges could strengthen partnerships with businesses: Holding workday sessions to share research would go a long way for those who are tethered to jobs.
Still, we need to be prudent in how papers and presentations are prepared. It’s easy for aides or interns, when preparing remarks and reports for politicians, to quote the first study they find confirming their (supervisor’s) original position. Interpretations get messy when public figures opine.
As an illustration, take a report by the U.S. nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, where scholars analyzed the budgetary effects of raising the minimum wage. On Twitter, Rep. Ilhan Omar concluded that an increased minimum wage would lift 900,000 individuals out of poverty, while Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed that the potential policy would eliminate 1.4 million jobs. Both statistics, among many other facets, were in the report, yet they were misrepresented in a polarizing fashion. The unfortunate reality is that millions of people follow these social media accounts and billions more use various platforms as a resource for (mis)information, and few individuals will ever read the actual research results directly.
Even if external interpretations are artful, there’s a duty to communicate contrasting evidence to everyone. Indeed, progress has been made on the circulation front with experts sharing their knowledge through podcasts, TED Talks, and TikToks. The close reader will have noticed that all hyperlinks are open access, something unfathomable a decade or so ago—and even earlier, when academic journals started transitioning online. The next deep-seated shift I’m proposing seems less drastic.
It’s a long road to return research results to the public. So, as we vow in 2022 to (once again) drink less, exercise more, and write daily, let’s pledge also to focus on those to whom research belongs. The public good depends on such—even demands it.