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Discovery Drives Innovation: Where Scholarship and Research Meet Real-World Impact

Discovery Drives Innovation: Where Scholarship and Research Meet Real-World Impact

By Dr. Steven Leath, Auburn University President

An earlier article offered a personal perspective on the enduring relevancy of land-grant universities and proposed three overarching responsibilities leaders of those institutions face in meeting the challenges of the 21st century:

  • Inspiring, educating and preparing students for life;
  • Conducting groundbreaking scholarship and research; and
  • Engaging students, faculty and partners to apply that expertise and innovation to serve the greater good.

Today I delve into one of those core responsibilities – Conducting groundbreakingscholarship and research – in more depth.

A Core Mission

Leaders of land-grant universities have a responsibility to drive the development of academic scholarship and fundamental scientific research that creates and advances knowledge in the purest sense. That responsibility is at the core of our mission. Exploring and advancing knowledge inspires student learning, and we build upon that learning by leveraging the expertise of our students, faculty and partners to innovate, to create new science, new technologies, new applications and methodologies that can directly and meaningfully improve lives.

Academic scholarship and fundamental scientific research can also serve as the launch pad for entrepreneurs, industry leaders, government officials and others seeking to develop practical applications of those discoveries that improve quality of life and strengthen economic opportunity.

At Auburn, those efforts have transformed pure science into critical innovations in the fields of cybersecurity and threat detection, new disease treatments and therapies, breakthroughs in next generation transportation, agriculture, health disparities and community-based architectural design, to name just a few. A more complete look at how Auburn research is changing lives is available online. Other land-grant universities can point to similar results and impact.

A Shared Responsibility

These advances in scholarship and research don’t happen in a vacuum, of course. Scholars don’t simply sit in their offices typing out new avenues of thought. Researchers aren’t spending years on end holed up in their labs conducting experiment after experiment in isolation. There are many other collaborators and stakeholders at the table who both contribute to and benefit from the discovery process. The effort – and responsibility – to advance scholarship and research is, by necessity, a shared one.

That begins with the discovery process itself. Very few monumental discoveries are made by a single individual – even Alexander Graham Bell had his Thomas A. Watson just a room away. Profound scholarship and impactful research more often than not occurs in teams – collaborations of experts and expertise brought to bear to solve a problem or set of problems deemed worthy of a solution.

And increasingly, those teams are interdisciplinary, with scholars and researchers from multiple disciplines, individual schools and other campus organizations collaborating to create new approaches to complex problems and meaningful solutions to pressing needs.

One example of this interdisciplinary approach at work is Auburn’s recent award of a federal grant for the development of housing solutions for people with disabilities and those seeking to age in place. An interdisciplinary corps of architects, designers, construction professionals, smart home technologists, people with disabilities and disability research and policy specialists at Auburn are leveraging their combined expertise to develop dignified, practical solutions for affordable, accessible housing. The problem is large and growing. A Census Bureau report projects that the old age dependency ratio will rise from 22 percent in 2010 to 35 percent by 2030.

This shared responsibility for conducting scholarship and research with meaningful impact extends beyond the campus. As the above example demonstrates, government agencies and other funders have a role as well. And the breadth of collaborating organizations extends beyond government. The Advisory Council we created for that project includes representatives from Habitat for Humanity, AARP, Volunteers of America, Alabama Institute of Deaf and Blind, Alabama Home Builders Association and individuals with disabilities who are actively engaged in policy issues, advocacy and home adaptation.

And last but certainly not least, private industry shares responsibility for driving scholarship and research at our land-grant universities. In many cases, they are the recipients of the tangible benefits of those efforts – the science, the expertise, the intellectual property. While academic-business partnerships abound, opportunities exist to make these relationships more productive, more efficient, more impactful.

An important way private enterprise can help is through funding, of course, and we need to do more to make that financial collaboration increasingly meaningful and productive for all involved. But there’s more that can be done. For example, educational institutions – even land-grant universities focused on the core mission of serving the social good – don’t always know precisely where the next important scientific discovery will come from or which area of scholarship or research will become the life spring of innovation that changes lives in monumental ways. Private enterprise can help by funding pure scholarship and research in a general sense in addition to those projects with more clearly identifiable applications, products or services.

A Leadership Opportunity

As leaders of premiere land-grant universities, we can do more, too. We can make it easier for government agencies and private enterprise to collaborate with us. We can better balance and align our efforts and engagements in tandem with the needs of our partners and constituent communities. The answers aren’t easy, but when we focus our respective resources and expertise on areas we know best – disciplines that have produced the most promising innovations so far and those addressing the most pressing needs of our constituent communities – we’re on the right track.

In my next post, I’ll look at how we’ll get there.

Dr. Steven Leath became Auburn University’s 19th president in June 2017. A proven leader with expertise in teaching, extension, research, and economic development, Dr. Leath’s installation as Auburn University president occurs on March 29, 2018. To learn more about Dr. Leath and his upcoming installation event, visit auburn.edu/auburninspires.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

About Maggie Lawrence