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The Iron Cage and the Ivory Tower

It's time for government and universities to effectively partner.

Universities are filled with researchers. Researchers are interested in whatever they are studying and tend to have laser focus on one particular question. They are motivated to partner with government  because they want access to data or they are interested in applying their research to real-world situations. It is also possible that they are looking for student projects or course partners.

But establishing and sustaining university-government collaborative research projects is an especially complex process. These projects often entail numerous stages that are tailored to the specificities of  each partner and involve multiple organizational hurdles, such as different primary objectives, specific timeframes dictated by short semester cycles, and lack of human resources to support and sustain ongoing negotiation. Because incentive mechanisms and supporting structures are scarce, even the governments that do partner with universities may fail to reap the benefits of collaboration. In many instances, the flow and exchange of data from universities to government and society at large may be limited. Nevertheless, government-university research projects and programs that align with the interests of both parties hold great potential for skill development and knowledge transfer. They can also tap into additional and much-needed funding sources to support projects that improve civic life.

Several participants in the second cohort of the City Accelerator, an initiative of Living Cities and the Citi Foundation, have leveraged partnerships with local universities in powerful ways. The city of Atlanta partnered with researchers at Georgia Tech to develop an outreach strategy to engage local residents in a major planned redevelopment, and Georgia Tech helped the city analyze the data collected. Baltimore’s “We Are Here 4 Reentry” project, designed to assist and engage citizens returning from prison or jail, partnered with the Maryland Institute College of Art to plan and host community meetings, and used the college’s equipment for filming and printing.

With over 100 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston region, the city of Boston is a particularly appropriate locale for establishing platforms that support mutually beneficial relationships and the flow of information among researchers and practitioners. 

The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) provides one such platform that connects the region’s scholars, policymakers and civic leaders to spur two-way original urban research on the “cutting edge of social science and public policy.” Another example is the Boston Civic Media Consortium, which is a consortium of university faculty and their community/government partners intended to centralize questions of civic life in the academic study of media and technology. The consortium supports classes around a “wicked problem” in universities across the city. Government is a partner in framing the problem and amplifying the solutions that emerge from classroom work. The consortium has been building a network of academics and practitioners over the last year and will begin in fall 2017 addressing the issue of climate adaptation and environmental justice.

Some of the nuances of these research partnerships have been spelled out by the Engagement Lab and the MacArthur Foundation in a report entitled "Design Action Research in Government." What is clear from these aforementioned initiatives is that researchers (despite having a reputation for being idiosyncratic and encapsulated in a bubble far removed from realities on the ground) often want to make their work relevant to society and are thus interested to find direct application for their research in policy and planning. In fact, researchers in the social and political sciences are increasingly engaging communities as partners to find solutions to complex problems and facilitate positive social change.

Often, government-university partnerships are governed only by University Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which are set up to protect human subjects of research. In practice, they are set up to protect universities from liability. Last year, my research team at the Engagement Lab launched the Community-Academic Research Partnerships (CARP) project.  Interviews with community organizations and government pointed to how academics in Boston were generally perceived to possess more resources and socio-political clout than practitioners to set research priorities and derive use-value from the data generated. What’s more is that the modern context for research, that most notably involves digital tools and platforms, raises a complex and evolving set of ethical questions relating to privacy, consent and motivations for partnerships, that neither party is prepared to effectively deal with. Although IRBs are set up at institutions to govern the modalities and ethics of human subjects research, the community in question is usually never brought to the table when evaluating the ethics and relevance of research, and it’s also not mandatory for communities to participate in other core decision-making processes that may have profound social and cultural implications.

While Boston may be an extraordinary case because of the sheer amount of universities in the area, most cities, large and small, have access to university resources. And yet, most governments do not effectively cultivate those partnerships. Government has a lot to offer, including access to data, access to impact, and amplification. Researchers want these things, but the logistics of partnerships are not straightforward. Government needs to think beyond the RFP and the bully pulpit to achieve real and lasting partnerships with universities.
Leader of City Accelerator's cohort on Local Government Engagement
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