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Time to take the Gulag out of ResearchTime to take the Gulag out of Research

Time to take the Gulag out of Research

First, significant amounts of university research never reach the places that need the knowledge. Thousands of published papers are locked up in journals that few people read and, in some cases, couldn't afford to read if they wanted to. Memorial University in St. John's Newfoundland undertook a noble effort to make the insight and knowledge of their institution available to the community and marketplace.

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Topics: Education, Complexity, Innovation
Time to take the Gulag out of Research September 1, 2011  |  By Milton Friesen
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The increasing complexity and rate of change we face requires better application of our hard-won research results and full utilization of the researchers and teams who are generating insight. Laments about knowledge sharing are ubiquitous in our data-saturated ecosystem; what could more strongly demonstrate that we've still got as much of a distribution problem with information as we do with food and other resources? I'd like to suggest two areas that are worth exploring.

First, significant amounts of university research never reach the places that need the knowledge. Thousands of published papers are locked up in journals that few people read and, in some cases, couldn't afford to read if they wanted to. Memorial University in St. John's Newfoundland undertook a noble effort to make the insight and knowledge of their institution available to the community and marketplace. Dubbed Yaffle (which they note is a Newfoundland term for an armload of fish), it was initiated with funding from the University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and has been running for a few years now. One of the challenges they have faced is getting researchers to share what they know. Most of them consider that if they have submitted to a journal and had a paper published, they've completed their task. Sharing their research with the community in an exchange forum seems less appealing. On the other side, the community may be unsure in the early going how to make use of what is being offered.

Second, there are a lot of people with Ph.D. degrees who are not in universities or colleges. According to "The disposable academic" in The Economist, in the US 100,000 Ph.D. have graduated over a four-year period that featured only 16,000 new professorships opening up. In 2007 Canada graduated 4,800 docs pair with 2,616 new professorial hires. Some of these scholars are finding work in the private sector, but only a small percentage. That means that a whole lot of highly educated people are floating around in occupational spaces that may be far from their expertise. In general terms, that is an intellectual pool worth tapping (Brazil and China are apparently in the opposite position, citing shortages).

Here are a few suggestions:

1. We need new platforms that improve the flow of academic research. It should be easy to find, free to access if it comes from a public university, and formatted for easy recombination, output, and interaction.

2. We need new platforms that highly trained people outside of academia can use to build up and apply what they know. InnoCentive is one example of this.

3. We will need new institutional forms that are native to this more open ecosystem. Some aspects of current post secondary institutional life are evolvable but universities in particular have proven to be among the least innovative public institutions. Canada is fully culpable in this regard. Given our deep investment in these institutions, we will need to find ways to be better at what they are supposed to be doing.

4. Think tanks oriented to new platforms such as those suggested above are well-positioned to take advantage of this intellectual capital and use it for the common good. Many of the existing think tanks will not be able to do this well but a new generation of them will. Among the 6500 global think tanks, some are catching the scent of this opportunity.

We need research more than ever. Designing ways to ensure that happens is one of the generational challenges we must courageously undertake.

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