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Is academia slow in redefining it’s research impact agenda?

Publish or perish is a common catchphrase in academia, transcending many generations and fuelling the strong emphasis on impact-based/traditional metrics such as; the number of publications, citations, impact factor of journals and in recent times, academic rankings.

To many academics, the traditional response and obsession to the “publish” or “perish” mantra has been the incessant drive to increase the number of publications in academic journals and feel good about it. Of course, it also adds to the promotion and progression of one’s academic career. Yes, for people in academia, it is indeed fulfilling to feel excited about increasing publications and citations, because it is painstakingly hard work often in isolation and amid frustrations.

In contrast, many non-academic actors supported by widespread public opinion have often expressed doubt on the relevance and usefulness of research in academia, including especially the publishing track and the impact that these research findings are really making in society. That is, in the end, do these research findings published in academic journals really find space into communities to cause the changes the society expects? Depending on which part of the world is in contention, this might arguably generate different responses and perhaps rightly so. Yet the reality is that, academia in especially developing countries has a lot more to do in reaching out to the public, who are to be the ultimate beneficiaries of university research.

In principle, recent publications on academia-public relationships would seem to certify in favour of public opinion. For example, just about a decade ago in 2012, Justin Norrie, editor of the popular academic blog conversation.com captioned this headline, “Universities to explain benefits of research to end users.” In this write-up, it was explained that, academics from universities in Australia were to explain to non-specialists in layperson language the benefits of research they have undertaken 20 years down the line, in a bid to justify public confidence and taxpayers’ spending.

Drawing from the UK experience with the Research Excellence Assessment (REA), it was clear that the Australian Higher Education Authority was concerned about the impact academic research was really making in society. In 2016, Dr. Marina Joubert, senior science communication researcher at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), Stellenbosch University, South Africa, also writing in converstation.com provided affirmation in stating that, “Science needs to start speaking to people’s everyday lives in Africa.” This was in response to a call that South African Scientists needed to make science user-friendly to the populace.

Subsequently, in 2019, Marina Joubert reported on a move by the South African Government to obligate scientists towards regular public engagement. She espoused, ‘’new policy commits South Africa’s scientists to public engagement. Are they ready?” Across the Atlantic to the US, University of California, San Francisco assistant professor John Jerry Nutor of family health care nursing, has also been drawn into the discourse when in 2020 he cautioned that, ‘’Scientists must share research findings with participants.”

Jerry John Nutor argued in the converstation.com that, academics do not engage in research for their own curiosity but to create public awareness and enhance development. He suggested that, researchers needed to show more commitment in ensuring that research findings get to the people who really need them for improvement in their lives, the public. There is indeed a plethora of articles on this thorny subject suggesting that there is a widespread concern across the globe of the lack of real impact of academic research in diffusion into the public domain.

Martin Bliemel, Associate Dean of Research at the University of Technology Sydney and Julian Zipparo, Executive Manager, Research Engagement of the same university surmises this concern poignantly by cautioning of a potential public resentment of the relevance and usefulness of university research going into the future (The conversation.com, 2020). It is therefore not surprising when they posited that;

“The COVID-19 crisis has intensified the need to revisit the relationship universities have with society.”  Academia indeed has to grapple why and/or how research can be prioritised to benefit society before public pressure is escalates for reforms, when in fact universities should have known better to be proactive. Prioritising research to benefit society will ultimately create legitimacy and public confidence for both people in academia and the public.

It is to be noted that, this seemingly disconnect between academia and the public is not a recent observation. Indeed, this has often been discussed in a number of academic disciplines since the 1990s. Writing in the Impact Blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2018, Kate Williams, an economic and social research council research Lead at the Lucy Canvedish College and Jonathan GrantVice-President/Vice-Principal at King’s College London with a commitment to seeing society beyond research, observed that, in the UK for example, early interest in calling for research impact beyond academia emerged in policy discussions in 1993.

Recounting a brief history of how impact assessment has grown in the UK and Australia, Williams and Grant outlined that, the push for assessing the wider impact of research on societies led to reforms in UK’S Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), later developing into what is now known as Research Excellence Framework (REF). As it is now, the advocacy for universities to ensure research findings impact the wider society has become global. Anne Toomey writing from the Pace University and also in the conversation.com in 2018 observed that ‘’scientists are increasingly been demanded to produce research with impact that goes beyond the confines of academia”. She suggests that academia should begin to redefine impact “so research can help real people right away, even before becoming a journal article.”

Presently, most countries now have policies and laws mandating researchers to demonstrate impact beyond academia all in the hope of bridging the gap. However, while many countries in the global north seem to be committed to this cause, countries in the global south especially, Sub-Sahara Africa have catch up to make in this important discourse.

Many African countries including Ghana have lessons to learn as public demand is likely to be on the increase sooner than later, especially with the proliferation of social media metrics. On the continent, the Republic of South Africa is ahead and could offer grounds for lessons and knowledge transfer. It will be in the interest of African universities to be proactive before they are forced to succumb to public pressure, when they least expect it, which may lead to confidence crises in higher-education on the continent.  The flipside is “Academics can change the world if they stop talking only to their peers.” (Savo Heleta, The converstation.com, March, 2017)

So, in the end, what really are the obligations of universities? From the foregoing, is clear that, whatever the obligations are, it is not enough for researchers to feel content after publishing in journal articles meant to be read mostly by their peers and few people, if any, outside the ivory tower.’’ Here, let me draw on Dr Zeshan Qureshi admonition to academia on the same subject. Dr Zeshan Qureshi is an award-winning writer and academic in the UK who has published severally in high-ranking journals such Lancet and the British Medical Journal. He states it is not enough for one to publish in journals and think that this is going to address societal problems.

In fact, he suggests that, one could be described as being delusional in thinking publishing in journals alone was enough for research to reach the public domain. This is what he says in conclusion. People in academia “will need to know how to communicate those messages to the people that make decisions, to politicians and through the media and to the general public.” Does university research impact matter in this? Yes, it does, because as stated by Bliemel and Zipparo, universities exist to undertake research to solve societal problems (The conversation.com, November 2020). This write-up has revealed that, the discourse on academic-public relationships is an age-old fluid discussion and perhaps more relevant than now. Universities need to act quickly in reaching out to society, as the public is demanding much more engagement, especially with the ever-growing media landscape.

The writer is an award-winning Professor of the Emerald Real Impact Award and the Head of the Centre for Settlements Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.

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