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Breaking Academic Silos and Brokering University Expertise: The Importance of Working With Partners Toward Large-scale Societal Impact

November 21, 2023

For many companies, universities have become essential innovation partners. However, companies often struggle to establish and run university partnerships effectively. —Frolund, Murray & Riedel, MIT Sloan Management Review 2018

The Fifth National Climate Assessment released last week was a reminder of the urgent need for large-scale climate solutions. Federal incentives to corporations and consumers have accelerated to expand renewables, improve carbon capture, and build the infrastructure to support climate-friendly adaptations in major sectors like energy, food, transportation, and manufacturing. Much of the innovation underpinning these advances will continue to emerge from university-based research, but the growing challenges of climate require more rapid translation of research into practice. Leaders of universities declare such translation a goal, but leaders of government agencies, corporations, and NGOs still often find universities frustrating to work with.

Working with universities is often challenging. While we have projects with many universities, we wouldn’t be working with Cornell University in such a systematic, long-term way if it weren’t for Cornell Atkinson serving as our portal into the university and manager of the Cornell relationship.
—Fred Krupp, 2023, president, Environmental Defense Fund

An increasing number of leaders at peer research universities share my conviction that new models are needed beyond the traditional quest for philanthropic gifts and short-term grants and contracts. For commercialization of technological innovation, a few universities have achieved great success with innovative approaches. Stanford and Silicon Valley, and MIT and Boston’s Kendall Square epitomize this. Universities have increasingly built entrepreneurship programs, technology licensing staff, business incubators, and infrastructure to support such endeavors, in large part because there is promise of bringing substantial revenue into the university.

While such efforts are engines of technological innovation, few analogous efforts support the research and collaboration needed for innovations in corporate practice and government policy that, alongside technological innovation, are essential to solving society’s more wicked and existential problems like climate change. Good models have not existed for deploying university intellectual resources at the speed and scale required to match the ambitions of vast public investments to address multifaceted global challenges.

On these topics, substantial barriers to collaboration exist in both nonacademic organizations and universities, but as an academic, I’ll address what I know best: the barriers within universities. Universities are so mysterious to many leaders of nonacademic organizations that they need a decoder – a portal, a navigator – to tap the incredibly deep and broad expertise at universities like Cornell. I’ll start by describing the key hurdles to working with universities and conclude with what we at Cornell Atkinson, and some of our peer organizations at other universities, are doing to become good partners to corporations, NGOs, and government agencies.

Universities are sprawling, brawling, radically decentralized organizations. They are far from being “command and control” entities. They are structured as loosely nested fiefdoms, typically with deans of colleges across the university having a great deal of power. But power is relative, and not the same as operational control: The power of university leaders is not at the same as that of the head of a corporate division, branch of an NGO, or government agency.

Power within universities is constrained by at least two major aspects of university culture: academic freedom and the entrepreneurial spirit necessary for faculty to succeed in research. These mutually reinforcing characteristics enable innovation to flourish in universities but collectively erect at least four specific hurdles for nonacademic organizations seeking a university collaboration.

First, academic freedom means that from graduate school on faculty have been rewarded for working on what they (and their disciplinary peers) thought was important.

Second, self-reinforcing disciplinary silos and norms of academic publishing impede new insights from reaching potential collaborators beyond the strict confines of disciplinary boundaries.

Third, the peer review process of traditional funding organizations (e.g., NSF, NIH) perpetuates disciplinary norms. Funding from nontraditional, impact-oriented funders like foundations does not bring the same large proportion of overhead payments, which universities depend on to maintain research infrastructure.

Finally, pre-tenure researchers are discouraged from interdisciplinary and “applied” research, even though a growing proportion of them desire greatly to help solve societal problems. By the time a faculty member receives tenure, they are rarely younger than 37, and often in their early 40s. As Arthur C. Brooks bracingly pointed out in his 2022 book, “From Strength to Strength,” peak creativity is in the rear-view mirror by then.

At Cornell Atkinson, we are building a new model, adapting some aspects of the technology commercialization models described earlier and incorporating elements of the extension programs of U.S. land-grant universities, which have evolved since the late 19th century to translate research into high-impact state-specific programs for communities and families in urban and rural areas.

First, with administrative support, convening power, and seed funding we have created a community of like-minded researchers, breaking down the disciplinary silos. The community includes all generations of scholars – from undergraduate students to faculty – into broad research collaborations to reduce climate risk, accelerate the energy transition, advance food security, and increase One Health.

Universities are full of creative geniuses, but implementation of ideas and inventions is not an academic strong point. Cornell Atkinson helps fill that gap, providing staff and infrastructure to support implementation for geniuses.
—James C. Morgan, 2023, retired CEO of Applied Materials Inc. and winner of the National Medal of Technology & Innovation

Second, staff experts engage researchers in shaping pathways to impact through strategic partnerships with NGOs, corporations, and government agencies. In fostering these creative collisions of ideas and opportunities, we act like a mini-foundation within Cornell University. Once a co-created research agenda with a partner is agreed, we financially support projects that are co-produced by our external partners, who contribute their own resources as well as their complementary skills.

Third, we learn from and share our experience with peer organizations at other universities, especially land-grant universities, which have a built-in culture of responding to societal needs. Examples of private and public peers include the Natural Capital Project and other components of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, the University of Washington’s Earth Lab, Princeton’s High Meadows Environmental Institute, Arizona State University’s Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment. The challenges are far too great for any one university, and many global challenges have local and regional manifestations that benefit from involvement of nearby universities.

Finally, for partner organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and Walmart, we and our peer institutes dramatically lower the transaction costs of working with the complexity and decentralized structure of the university. We provide a central point of contact for the external organization and connect partners to the appropriate expertise wherever it resides within the university. Embracing this role as a hub and navigator is essential to helping corporations, NGOs, and government agencies to implement the changes in practices, products and policies necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

It would be tragic for nonacademic organizations to continue to be isolated from the expertise of universities. As multiple corporate and NGO leaders have told me, there is no other kind of organization that possesses the depth and breadth of intellectual capital housed at universities. The world needs more university expertise deployed collaboratively with other organizations to solve the urgent sustainability challenges of our time. Join us and our peers in institutional experimentation to overcome the barriers to advance our mission-driven effort to help solve the world’s sustainability problems.

Learn more about David M. Lodge

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