How do you go about changing the culture of an institutional system as established and deep-rooted as the university?

This question (or some variation of it) has been coming up repeatedly over the last number of weeks as we were preparing for this series. To begin, let us define culture as "the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour"*. In the context of an institution, culture is the invisible foundation underlying the intellectual, social, and moral faculties of the individuals that operate within it. To certain extents, it can subtly dictate which research activities are important, valuable, and worthwhile, and which are not - making it a very important topic to address in our discussion of academic disruption.

While culture is mostly self-perpetuating when left uninterrupted, there are a few upstream factors that can influence it. Due to the potential impact of culture on productivity and values, it is crucial to identify these factors and ensure they are in alignment with the intended vision. After a number of conversations with prominent leaders from both academia and industry**, the influential factor that we would like to focus on for the current blog is funding.

If you have read the 2017 Fundamental Science Review co-authored by Dr. David Naylor and colleagues, you will notice that many of the recommendations involve funding. Without funding, ideas would remain as ideas. As distributed through the Tri-Agency, government funding remains as one of the main enablers of Canadian science. But what if the current granting methods for funding were actually hindering our ability to be innovative in our science? As long as peer-reviewed publications remain as the major currency used by academics to thrive, there is little motivation to push our findings beyond the manuscript. Changing how the funding is granted and renewed may actually make the bigger impact.

Traditional applications, in a nutshell, take into account the merit of the investigator, and the novelty and rationale of the research idea. Renewal is dependent on productivity, which is measured mostly through publication history. What if mainstream grant applications also required a mandatory strategy to apply the discoveries? To take this further, what if pragmatic resolution of the research was required for grant renewal?*** While there are knowledge translation elements in place in some applications, they still possess unspoken reputations as afterthoughts at best. Moreover, we are referring specifically to pharmacological, technological, or venture creation, or at least an immediate plan to impact education, clinical practice, or policy. Although commercialization funding programs are available to researchers on the side, the average time for published evidence to reach practice is a staggering 17 years. We can cut this down by necessitating premeditated translation strategies and stringent accountability to commercialize where possible. Specific funds from the grants could even be allocated towards hiring business development specialists and engineers to work alongside the research team on the commercialization, such that the principal investigators are not distracted from conducting good science. Can you imagine the potential improvements this could bring to our healthcare system, economy, and public opinion of science? 

Nobel laureate, Art McDonald, once said, "The relationship - science begets innovation, which returns the favour - drives human progress and underlines the importance of balance support for both." The culture of academic research in Canada has leaned too heavily on science without innovation for far too long, permitting its siloed existence. This culture has led to a weak private sector for the health sciences and a public distrust in its benefits. It is time that we restored the symbiotic relationship between scientific research and innovation, ensuring that the returns are usable by the investors within a reasonable timeline. This proposed requirement of a "pragmatic resolution" plan at the grant-writing stage will enable the full application of more primary research, catalyze innovation, and provide greater foreseeable societal and economic impact for all Canadians.


*As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
**Much of my research was conducted through conversations and interviews at the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, an annual meeting attended by deans and research administrators from across Canada. 
***Admittedly, commercialization is often more relatable to biomedical researchers. However, there are still many ways that all researchers can apply their findings towards influencing education, public health, policy, communications, and others to still benefit society and the economy. My thesis in this blog is more about the immediacy, premeditation, and accountability of the application of research. 

Additional references:

  • Morris Z, Wooding S, Grant J The answer is 17 years, what is the question: understanding time lags in translational research. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 2011;104(12): 510–520.
  • Westfall J, Mold J, Fagnan L Practice-based research – “Blue Highways” on the NIH roadmap. JAMA 2007;297:403–6
  • Trochim W Translation Won't Happen Without Dissemination and Implementation: Some Measurement and Evaluation Issues. 3rd Annual Conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation Bethesda, MD: 2010
  • Green L, Ottoson J, García C, Hiatt R Diffusion theory and knowledge dissemination, utilization, and integration in public health. Annu Rev Public Health 2009;30:151–74