09/04/2012 05:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2012

Making Research Matter: The Academy Versus Real-World Problems

We've all heard comments that academics are out of touch, sitting in ivory towers, using big words and contributing little to the world. I can recall more than one instance when a family member said something cutting about how useless academic research is in the "real" world. Despite staunchly defending, contextualizing, explaining and at times just hemming and hawing about the "important" work academic researchers do, after more than a decade in the academy I have to acknowledge the limitations of most academic research.

Don't get me wrong; the academy is full of caring and highly competent researchers who want to do meaningful, social justice oriented work. However, the disciplinary structure of the academy largely excludes the kinds of collaborations that are needed to produce research that matters. While attempts at interdisciplinarity have prompted many advances, the cumulative impact on how much our research matters beyond the gates of our own campuses is underwhelming. The fact remains that there are disincentives for taking on long-term, collaborative projects which likely involve non-academic stakeholders.

When it comes to making research count the stakes are enormous and the ethical mandate strong. The pending problems of our time--sustainability, violence, health and well-being--demand our collective attention. These problems have many dimensions and can't be addressed effectively by experts in only one area. If ever there was a time to conduct research that matters, it's now. In recent decades there have been great strides towards social justice research. The ethical groundswell within the academy has been coupled with a public that is increasingly engaged in discussions about social and environmental problems (thanks to the Internet and social media). This confluence of factors--big problems, social justice perspectives and the engaged public--has had an impact on how most academics view their work and there has been a clear push towards public scholarship. Unfortunately, the infrastructure really doesn't support this work. In the former age of publish-or-perish, researchers were generally able to meet that imperative because the academic tenure, promotion, publication and grant structure was designed accordingly. Now that we are in the era of go-public-or-perish, we have to recognize the failings of the existing structure to support our objectives, and we have to redesign academic research structures accordingly.

The existing tenure and promotion system continues to enforce disciplinarity. Academics have clear incentives to design small-scale projects that can be completed and published quickly. Moreover, sole authorship is favored over co-authorship and collaboration. Further, peer-reviewed articles and/or monographs are required for tenure and promotion at most, if not all, institutions. By requiring research that produces such limited outcomes, researchers' hands are tied. It is also clear that journal articles are highly unlikely to reach the public so by privileging this form the entire academic structure discourages scholarship that is truly of value to the public.

I believe transdisciplinarity provides a pathway for addressing real-world problems of import and making the work of the academy valuable to the communities in which we are enmeshed. Transdiscplinarity is a problem-centered approach to research. Under this approach, researchers from relevant disciplines as well as non-academic stakeholders pool their expertise and resources resulting in joint projects that transcend disciplinary borders. For instance, take the issue of bullying in schools which has garnered considerable media attention and is of concern to many parents. In order to address this problem holistically experts from education, sociology, psychology and gender studies need to work together along with other relevant stakeholders within school systems.

The major challenges of our time require researchers across the disciplines along with non-academic stakeholders to bring together their resources in order to address pressing needs and serve the public. Moreover, we need to value and incentivize the distribution of research findings in high impact, practical venues, judged based on their appropriateness for the goals of a particular project. For example, newsletters, op-eds, websites, performances in community spaces, and other forms for making our research available more broadly need to be regarded as legitimate "publishing" activities. Put simply, in order to produce research that matters we need to design a system that enables us to do so.