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Forum 40:

Can Universities Serve the Public Good? Using Rigorous Research for Social Impact

Held Thursday, February 21, 2019

Forum Summary

Pundits and politicians have lately made popular sport out of blaming universities for not making good use of their resources. In response, some universities have launched ambitious efforts to prepare their students to serve the public good in the future. But a powerful response is also available for the present: reshaping incentives within the university to support faculty research that responds to real-life challenges. Typically, university researchers are rewarded for developing and testing theories and publishing academic articles and books. That work must continue. But there is also room for efforts that more directly respond to the pressing problems of the day. For social scientists, producing research that actually makes a difference in people’s lives means working in partnership with officials in public agencies or private nonprofit organizations. Without support within the university, however, most researchers have little professional incentive to participate in such partnerships or to address questions attuned to local contexts. It is time for this to change. Universities can and should serve the public good by incentivizing researchers to engage in local partnerships.