Civic Science Sparks With…APLU

June 1, 2023

Greetings Civic Science Community,

What does it take to change a system? 

Many in our community are working to change systems of academic science, including the central goal of rewarding and supporting scholars who engage in civic science—from science communication to evidence-informed policy to community-engaged research.

Our next Civic Science Connect will delve into these efforts with Civic Science Fellow Elyse Aurbach and her Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) host partners Kacy Redd and Howard Gobstein. Below they spark the conversation with reflections on how this work is “intrinsic to the mission of public research institutions” and requires action from people on every level: top-down, bottom-up, and “middle-in.”

It also requires learning from successes across fields and over time—next year the Cooperative Extension system of partnership between land-grant universities and farmers and ranchers will mark its 110th anniversary.

In a number of threads that illuminate the long road to institutional and systemic change, a point from a paper on implementing community-engaged research by 2020 Fellow Karen Andrade and colleagues stands out: the value of making space for “creative tension.” “The process of discussing and navigating differences of opinion should be seen as healthy,” they write. It’s through negotiating disparate views that new understandings are reached. Our diversity is our strength.

In community,

Elizabeth Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation

Elizabeth Christopherson: How would you introduce yourself and describe your work with the Civic Science Fellows Program to the growing civic science network?

APLU’s Modernizing Scholarship for the Public Good effort focuses on the ways public research universities can support scholars and advance reward and recognition related to Public Impact Research, Cooperative Extension, civic science, and other forms of public engagement, with special attention to the ways that diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are integral to this work.

Elyse Aurbach: I’m a neuroscientist and public engagement professional who loves higher education…and also wants to see colleges and universities evolve to better intersect with society. I wear two hats—I am a Civic Science Fellow with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Director of Public Engagement and Research Impact at the University of Michigan’s Office of the Vice President for Research. As a Civic Science Fellow, I’ve had the great privilege of spending a couple of years learning deeply about how institutions of higher education can change to support equity and public engagement, and in my role at Michigan, I have the opportunity to apply this knowledge to support engaged researchers directly.

Kacy Redd: I am the Associate Vice President of Research & STEM Education at APLU. As part of my STEM education portfolio, I co-direct the Network of STEM Education Centers (PI, NSF #1524832), which serves more than 200 STEM Education Centers/Institutes/Programs at 160+ institutions. These centers serve as the hub for improving STEM education on their campuses. I am also the Co-PI and Co-lead of the Backbone for the NSF INCLUDES Aspire Alliance (#1834518) aimed at diversifying the STEM professoriate. Working with the Association of American Universities (AAU), I co-led the Accelerating Public Access to Research Data (APARD) effort funded by NSF (NSF #1837847, #1939279) and NIH. Before joining APLU, I served as a science and technology policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences on the Board of Higher Education and Workforce. I received my Ph.D. in neuroscience from Columbia University, where I was funded by a HHMI Predoctoral Fellowship, and my B.S. from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Howard Gobstein: I’ve devoted my career in universities and government to studying, promoting, and improving how universities serve society, particularly through research and STEM education. As Sr. VP for STEM Education and Research Policy at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, I’ve worked with the senior research officers of our 250 members to conceive and promote the concept of Public Impact Research. The term ‘modernizing scholarship’ was coined some 5 years ago by our then Chair of the Council on Research to connote how important public engagement is to the contemporary university. To me, public impact is at the core of Civic Science, and in turn the Civic Science movement is intrinsic to the mission of public research universities. The culmination of my work is to involve institutional leaders in the efforts of Elyse and Kacy to identify university practices in the vanguard of helping our faculty to contribute their best to the public good.

Elizabeth: What key learnings do you see carrying forward from your Civic Science Fellows program partnership?

We have two:

We hope that one takeaway is that there are already universities who have leaned in as “early movers” to really think strategically and create effective mechanisms to encourage faculty participation in engaged- and equity-oriented research and scholarship. We’re not starting from scratch—and celebrating these early movers is a critical element to helping support systems of institutions to change together.

Another takeaway that we feel is important from this phase of the Modernizing Scholarship for the Public Good initiative will be an appreciation of the value of mapping systems to develop strategic change efforts. This process is complex—due both to the breadth of individual institutions and in how each institution connects with external entities, including funders, disciplinary societies, and publishers/scholarly communications. While this idea is certainly not unique to Modernizing Scholarship, we hope to provide functional tools and frameworks that individuals can use to stimulate conversation and change within their institutions.

“I’ve gained a very deep appreciation for the complexity and longevity of change work in institutions of higher education: from how context and culture shape an institution’s readiness for change, to influences and pressures that individual universities experience from funders, politicians, and disciplinary landscapes, to the different factors and affordances that allow different colleges to adapt in different ways.”

-Elyse Aurbach, Civic Science Fellow at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Director, Public Engagement & Research Impacts, University of Michigan Office of the Vice President for Research

Elizabeth: What has been a meaningful achievement or insight during your time in the Civic Science Fellows program?

Elyse: Working with APLU has dramatically extended the network of institutional change leaders to whom I have connected, worked with, and learned from. Without the Modernizing Scholarship project and the guidance of my host partners, I would not have had the opportunity to focus deeply and systematically on institutional change as a field, to expand my understanding of the huge, complex pressures faced by institutions of higher education, or to consider ways that I can apply what I’ve learned through the work to my role at Michigan.

Specifically, I’ve gained a very deep appreciation for the complexity and longevity of change work in institutions of higher education: from how context and culture shape an institutions’ readiness for change, to influences and pressures that individual universities experience from funders, politicians, and disciplinary landscapes, to the different factors and affordances that allow different colleges to adapt in different ways. The organizational ecosystems are huge, complex, and constantly changing. This appreciation for strategy—as well as the tactical insights I’ve gained from other universities who have successfully implemented important programs and efforts—are inspirational as I look towards creating programs that help support engaged- and equity-oriented researchers at the University of Michigan.

Elizabeth: What evolution have you seen in how public and land-grant universities approach public engagement? What advice you’d offer to others beginning new collaborations together to build momentum toward a culture of civic science?

There is a growing sophistication in academia about what public engagement can look like and the opportunities and best practices in building partnerships with community members. There is a growing shared language in community-engaged scholarship and public impact research. As budget constraints change the amount of state support for postsecondary education, public universities are striving to engage the public more comprehensively. The traditional notion of university Cooperative extension from Land-grant universities is changing to meet a broader set of public needs, even as institutions consolidate their footprints across their state.

To foster the appropriate incentives and recognition for faculty engagement with the public takes top down (senior university leadership), bottom up (faculty and departmental leadership), and middle in (deans, boundary spanners, support services). Senior university leadership can empower a cross-campus conversation to think about the structural barriers that may be impeding this work.

Elizabeth: What do you see as key opportunities for the future of scholarship and public engagement that have the potential to advance civic science and produce innovative solutions?

There is an important role for organizations that convene leaders beyond individual institutions, including university associations, who can draw on their involved institutional leaders, and disciplinary societies, who can cultivate and galvanize scientific leaders. These organizations have a unique lens into change efforts that extend well beyond the context of any individual institution, and they serve as important conveners across fields. These organizations—as well as emerging networks like the Civic Science Network, the Transforming Evidence Network, and other groups of funders looking to catalyze cross-field collaboration—enable change-makers to find synergy and areas for greater collaboration across individuals and organizations. This effort to convene and coordinate is a critical element of supporting the larger system in which universities operate to change.

Elizabeth: As you look toward the future, what is a Civic Science aspiration you might share?

One great thing about the Civic Science Network is that it enables platforms for these deep discussions and connection-making with like-minded people and organizations. We hope that these networks continue to catalyze opportunities for collaborative and collective action.