Hopetoun Falls, Beech Forest, near Otway National Park, Victoria, Australia.

Is the knowledge and scholarship that universities produce relevant to the problems the world faces? In a new essay co-authored with an international group of researchers, Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI) and the Department of Geography argues that in order for science to best serve society and the planet, universities and researchers need to adjust their focus and take responsibility for institutional innovation in five key areas. 

In perhaps the most infamous quote from the EU Referendum campaign, Michael Gove declared that “the people of this country have had enough of experts.” The remark was both celebrated and ridiculed, but it is true that trust in institutions, including universities, is at an all-time low. Universities are increasingly seen as elite enclaves, out of touch with ‘real-world’ problems, conducting research in isolated bubbles.

While trust in institutions may be low, many of the researchers who work in universities have never been more engaged with the public, as events such as the recent March for Science made clear.

We cannot afford to wait decades for universities to provide the infrastructure and foster the culture needed to turn ideas into action. In our essay published in the journal BioScience, we argue that if we want science to serve society and the planet, we all must take responsibility for institutional innovation. In our view, there are five main things we must do to achieve this.

1. Produce not only professors but also future environmental leaders
Employers increasingly demand hybrid skills sets, but most graduate programmes produce individuals with highly specialised skill sets. Additionally, most university faculty members do not engage in applied science, and so students looking for a mentor to help them solve real-world problems would not be able to find a suitable individual in many academic departments. Universities need to do more to encourage partnerships between academia and ‘boots on the ground’ practitioners and providing training and career paths for scientists whose focus is communication and engagement with business, government and communities. Cambridge’s MPhil in Conservation Leadership, hosted at the Department of Geography and delivered by a partnership between several university departments and conservation organisations based in Cambridge as part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, is focused on issues of leadership and management and delivers a world-class and interdisciplinary education in conservation leadership.

2. Cultivate a culture that values use-inspired research
While basic research is a vital part of the work that universities do, applied research is often seen as less glamorous or intellectually demanding. However, the problems of the real world are wondrously complex, and require a level of creativity that matches anything in theoretical physics. Scientists need mentoring on how to develop and co-produce research alongside external partners, with the needs of the end user in mind, and universities need to incentivise this type of work. One of the aims of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, is to transform the global understanding and conservation of biodiversity and the natural capital it represents and, through this, secure a sustainable future for all life on Earth. Together, the CCI partners combine and integrate research, education, policy and practice to create innovative solutions for society and to foster conservation learning and leadership.

3. Move ideas into action faster
If we have learned anything from the climate change debate, it is that a small degree of uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. The urgent problems that we face require an adaptive management approach, with action based on best available knowledge – but, we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Academics should emulate the tech sector and use tools from design thinking to quickly prototype ideas and solutions with users. While it is important to be precise, an over-reliance on precision can mean that society misses out on potential solutions. Events such as #EarthOptimism, held on Earth Day earlier this year in the flagship David Attenborough Building, included a hands-on ‘Solutions Fair’, where over 30 local, national and international organisations showcased a variety of practical ways that people can make a real difference for the planet through their everyday lives.

4. Put people at the centre of environmental science
People make decisions, people shape policies, and people face the consequences of environmental change. However, individuals and communities are largely side-lined in environmental research, as they are seen as passive recipients of knowledge or as objects of study rather than as research partners. Real partnership with individuals and communities can also expand the frontiers of traditional disciplines, leading to new insights. Conservation research today has become a global and interdisciplinary field. A recent series of films released by the UCCRI highlights the incredible breadth of conservation research across the disciplines and the remarkable connections which exist in this exciting field.

5. Reimagine academic structures to encourage innovation
In many universities, environmental scientists are housed in discipline-specific departments without any real incentive to collaborate. Additionally, academic departments move slowly, and real-world problems require a more fast-paced and nimble approach. Progress will come in the form of outward-facing units, such as the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, which creates an interdisciplinary environment for research on biodiversity conservation and the social context within which humans engage with nature

Isolated initiatives, however, will not deliver solutions at the scale needed to address the most formidable challenges of our time. We need systemic change spanning incentives, culture and research design in order to cultivate a generation of scholars who will increase the reputation and influence of academia. It is time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs.

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