September 10, 2019

Three Academic Research Trends That Are Reshaping University Spaces, Technology, Support Services, and Staffing

Forecasting Trends

By Maggie Walsh, Connie Huang, and Elliot Felix

How is academic research evolving to better suit the needs of students, faculty, and our broader society? In our work with dozens of public and private non-profit research universities, there are three overarching trends changing research that are changing university spaces, support services, technology, and staffing. First, research is becoming a more complex, collaborative activity. Second, there is a growing focus on the real-world application, societal impact, and commercial return of academic research. Third, technology has growing importance as a tool to enable more complex and collaborative research across disciplines. This post will explore these recent trends in research methodology and offer recommendations for how institutions can better support the research taking place.

New York University’s Office of Institutional Research and Data Integrity

When universities put increased emphasis on technology-enhanced, interdisciplinary research with social and economic impact, this changes space, technology, support services, and staffing: What spaces should be provided, with what technology, and what locations? What new support services will researchers need, with what new roles, and what organizational structure? In this post, we explore three trends in the research process that are reshaping campuses.

Trend 1: More Complex, Coordinated, and Collaborative Research Methodology

With the increase in technological advancements, research regulations, and funding limitations, the process of research is becoming increasingly complex, and researchers have much more to do than just pursue their research topics. For instance, New York University’s Office of Institutional Research and Data Integrity helps researchers with the complexities that surround working with research data. More generally, universities recognize that researchers need help navigating the more operational and administrative parts of research, including funding, data management, human subjects research certification, and publishing.

As a result of growing operational complexity, research today requires larger teams and more coordination among researchers.

For example, as part of the Georgia Tech’s renewal of their library’s services and spaces, they have created a new role of “research navigator.” These staff assist researchers with their projects by guiding them through the research infrastructure, assessing research needs, and facilitating access to resources and tools. They help researchers negotiate administrative obstructions and other research hurdles so that they can focus on their topical concerns.

Teaching and research are becoming increasingly blended as colleges and universities involve undergraduate students in research. Professor David d’Avray at University College London is trying something new with his medieval history students. He brings in ancient manuscripts for his first-year students to read. These pieces are a part of his own research, and his students’ engagement with this material actually provides him with new perspectives on the subject. Additionally, the students are exposed to the process and experience of conducting original research in an entirely new way early in their academic career.

McGill University’s “Nexus Project” seeks to combine teaching and research; for instance, their “sowing the seeds of inquiry” course involves students conducting observations and analyses in the field. These types of blended teaching and research experiences prove to have a great impact on undergraduate exposure to research and on professors’ analysis of data/materials. They also correspond to what the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has identified as “high-impact practices” because working with a faculty member on a research project is among the activities most likely to increase student engagement.

High-Impact Practices represent enriching educational experiences that can be life-changing

Trend 2: Applied Research with Social and Economic Impact

Academic institutions are partnering with organizations and communities to address important societal challenges like poverty, climate change, and social justice – to name a few. These research initiatives provide an opportunity for institutions to work with and for local and global communities, non-profit organizations, or for-profit companies.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has started an ongoing initiative called “Grand Challenges which asks the question, “What happens when visionaries in science and scholarship unite with the community to solve one giant global problem? The answer: we take one step closer to a better world.” So far, the program has started two grand challenges, one focused on sustainability within Los Angeles, and the other, depression. Both challenges have produced multiple projects across the disciplines of UCLA and involve multiple outside stakeholders, including a local tech incubator and the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office.

Understanding, preventing, and treating depression is one of UCLA’s Grand Challenges

Likewise, Marquette University has created an “Innovation Alley” to work on projects at the intersection of university expertise and industry needs. Experiences like these are invaluable to students, as well as the greater community being served.

Alongside societal impact, universities are increasingly considering the potential commercialization of a research discovery.

Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ has developed the phrase “Technogenesis” which describes their trademarked process of working through research and commercialization simultaneously. This ensures their research will have commercial potential upon completion, rather than leaving the commercial aspect to someone else. According to a Bloomberg analysis, in 1991 there were 1,307 patents issued to U.S. universities, which yielded an annual patent licensing income of $130 million. By 2014 the number of patents had risen to 5,898 with a revenue of $2.2 billion. With government funding declining and tuition rising unsustainably, universities are turning to research income as a way to supplement rising tuition costs.

Many historically risk-averse institutions are changing their stance as they see the large returns other universities are getting from research investment. Though rare, a patent has the potential to earn a university millions or even billions of dollars; for example, Northwestern University’s “Lyrica,” an anti-epileptic drug, has earned a total of $1.3 billion for the university. What drives investment is the potential of a professor or student at your university to discover the next game-changing tool, like the CRISPR gene-editing technology developed by the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. In short, research is no longer solely based on scholarship. The potential for investment return and societal impact are changing the way universities allocate research funds.

Technology-enabled Research and Scholarly Communication

Not only are researchers studying and developing new technologies like CRISPR, they are also using technology in conducting academic research and disseminating their results in new ways. From the rise of digital publication outlets like blogs to computational tools like Qualtrics, the use of technology allows for faster access and more efficient management of data, fewer errors, and experimentation with the previously impossible. Among the “previously impossible” is in silico research, or research conducted via computer simulation, often enabled by “high-performance computing” centers with vast amounts of processing power in contrast to and complementing more traditional in vitro and in vivo research methods.

The University of Illinois’s research initiative “Crops in Silico” simulates crop’s reaction to global warming. Their goal is that this project, existing in a digital and interactive form, will create opportunities for people across the globe to collaborate in accelerating crop production.

Institutions including Princeton University, New York University, University at Buffalo, University of Chicago, University of Memphis, University of North Dakota, and Yale University have established dedicated centers for computational research. These centers focus on providing faculty, researchers, and students with the tools to perform analytics on their own data and research. The University at Buffalo’s Center holds workshops and has created extensive documentation on skills like software engineering, cluster management, and other data analytics so that people of all backgrounds can access and use in their research pursuits. The University of Chicago’s Research Computing Center offers one-on-one consultations for people who feel intimidated or lost when beginning a research project and want to employ computational practices.

One-on-one consultation at University of Chicago’s Research Computing Center

A common thread among these centers is providing these resources in an accessible manner, which drives the point that computational skills are gaining importance in the research practices of all disciplines.

How Can You Change Your Spaces, Services, and Staffing To Better Support These Recent Trends in Research Methodology?

In order for an institution to create a successful environment for academic research, each of the trends outlined above needs to be carefully considered. Begin to think of the spaces, services, and operations needed to support these trends. How would you encourage a political science student to use data visualization to express the results of a recent election? What operations need to be in place to collaborate with a local NGO to simulate the impacts of a new affordable housing development on the surrounding community? What spaces do you need to provide to in-house startup companies in order for them to thrive? Here are five ways to answer these kinds of questions by updating your spaces, support services, and staffing:

  1. Blend teaching and research by encouraging circumstances where students will have exposure to research. For instance, George Washington University’s Science and Engineering Hall (SEH) houses a state-of-the-art research facility along with a “teaching tower,” where undergraduate students who come to this building for classes can access research labs and faculty members who can potentially spark their interests in research.
  2. Centralize support services and activities: As the research landscape gets more complicated, no one wants to get the “runaround” as they are referred from office to office or website to website trying to get the help they need. Several libraries such as American University and UCLA have each created a “Research Commons” within their libraries to offer programs and services that support research. These spaces offer classes and seminars, consultation with librarians and other experts, training in topics like data management and human subjects research certification, and events that showcase research projects all in one place.
  3. Connect researchers: Create programming and spaces that encourage people interested in new ideas to meet and discuss potential research topics. Thoughtful showcasing and intentional matchmaking can spark research partnerships across disciplines. Programs can be organized around specific funding opportunities for research topics to get people not only excited but equipped with the resources to realize their ideas. For example, Memorial University in Canada created a matchmaking site for its researchers.
  4. Create new support services and roles: In a space like a Research Commons, always consider spaces and services simultaneously while acknowledging the operations needed to support them. As previously mentioned, brightspot helped Georgia Tech identify new roles, such as the “research navigator” to complement a librarian’s content expertise with process expertise about topics like funding, certifications, and compliance.
  5. Make technology visible: In the digital age, a physical space can make research and the associated support services more visible and accessible while communicating institutional priorities. High-performance computing activities are often distributed in pockets across a campus and computing power itself is in the cloud. So, if supporting in silico research is a priority, a place to support and showcase it can be a great idea. For example, NYU recently announced the creation of a Center for Research Computing.
  6. Support technology transfer: The Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 created the opportunity for universities to own the intellectual property that results from federally-funded research – and many Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) were born to assist with and coordinate the commercialization of this research. Your university’s TTO is a key piece of the changing research landscape, and so it’s worth thinking about its services, staffing, and space in terms of role, capacity, and visibility. Their productivity is important because, at least when evaluated on financial terms alone, it can be a challenge to recoup the investments many institutions make in their TTO.

As research needs undergo this exciting period of transformation, it is crucial for colleges and universities to keep evaluating and updating their spaces, support services, and staffing to ensure that they are providing the best support for researchers so they can make an impact socially and economically, locally, and globally.

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