The Research Ecosystem: A Framework for Impact and Excellence

By Jay WalshFebruary 14, 2017

“If you want to build a world-class city, build a great university …”  — Former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Great research universities are engines for progress — individual and societal. They create knowledge, explore new vistas of possibility, and educate students and other stakeholders. Universities extend our understanding of particular disciplines and, through basic research, provide the foundation for transformative advances. These improvements may include next-generation products, such as pharmaceuticals that target serious disease, or superior processes, like better logistics to deliver supplies or humanitarian aid.

Universities are also hubs for cultivating critical thinking — what John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University felt was essential for “training good members of society” through the refinement, development, and expression of their opinions. When it works well, this process consolidates what’s best about the received wisdom, and yet is unafraid to challenge status quo thinking when it falls short. Such challenges, after all, can generate bold ideas and new models, which then may lead to breakthroughs that solve urgent social problems.

But how does a research university, one like Northwestern, create the environment that achieves these goals? What’s required to stimulate new knowledge?

Systems Thinking

It takes a robust ecosystem to succeed. Each of us is involved in an ecosystem — more than one, really, since we all are part of dynamic relationships in our personal and professional lives. These relationships frame our decisions and inform our options. We’re subject to influences and obligations: our spouse, family, finances, and jobs are usually among our top priorities. Balanced attention to each aspect of our lives brings fulfillment; imbalance in one area can affect the whole.

At Northwestern, the components of our discovery ecosystem are similarly easy enough to list, but achieving excellent outcomes within this resource network is the challenge. Why? Because the ecosystem is in flux: the parts are connected, but prone to resisting attempts to balance them. This fact creates internal tension that demands careful management. Here’s how I see the key components in Northwestern’s research ecosystem.

  • Creative and motivated talent. A world-class faculty is manifestly the foundational element, since thought leadership is at the core of research and teaching. At a university, talent does not stop at the faculty but includes great students, post-docs, and research staff. Recruitment and retention of talent is vital for every business, and a research university is no different. As in other businesses, universities leverage world-class talent to attract additional exemplary talent. The very best faculty not only are unintimidated by those who some say are better, but they strive to recruit colleagues who are even better than themselves. They know that this talent makes the entire research enterprise thrive, even their own, and allows everyone within it to pursue new ideas with greater potential impact. But talent alone is insufficient.
  • Great space. Whether you are a chemist or a writer, you need a space that allows you to do your best work. Ideally, this is a space that goes beyond “functional,” beyond “vibrant,” and is one that actually inspires you. Faculty also need core (shared) facilities. The university’s original core facility was a library: every faculty member could not possibly buy every book needed to conduct great research, so they turned to the library as an essential resource. Similarly, today, not every faculty member can buy and maintain each piece of scientific instrumentation or every IT system necessary to conduct research. This is especially the case with very expensive tools that pathbreaking research now often requires. Core facilities bring these resources, and the expertise to use them, into reach.
  • Administrative support. The research environment has become more complex and regulated. Faculty need experts to help them navigate that complexity and, significantly, to allow faculty to remain focused on what they do best — teaching and research. Building a strong, efficient administrative ecosystem is vital. While administrators do not directly drive classroom teaching or produce new research knowledge, they do perform a catalytic function and support those who are in the frontlines of discovery. As such, they are very much a part of the team producing discovery.
  • Collaborations. A university is a knowledge hub, but one with many connections around campus and to the world beyond. Candidly, not all the talent necessary for new discoveries can or should be found locally. Researchers need a way to collaborate within their university and with colleagues at other institutions. These relationships are especially crucial as new fields develop at the intersection of existing ones, prompting novel discovery opportunities. Collaborations also inspire greater research relevance, enabling more knowledge transfer from the laboratory bench to society. A great research university enables and encourages the development of those collaborations that drive new discoveries.
  • An entrepreneurial environment. It was once enough for academics to publish their findings and let society take the next steps. While that model will always be the foundation for academic scholarship, universities are finding that supporting a more direct outlet for discovery is essential. Too often, good ideas stalled at publication and went unimplemented. Increasingly, our faculty, post-docs, and students want to drive the next steps of taking a discovery directly to society. It is now essential that universities have an entrepreneurial environment to advance innovations.
  • Financial resources. Research is expensive. Research is often a “long game,” one measured in decades, not years or fiscal quarters. That’s why long-term financial support and excellent fiscal management are vital to the discovery ecosystem. Faculty generate much of their own funding — for instance, through grants — but not all of it. Some of those resources must come from other places. The university itself and incredibly supportive donors are two major other sources.

The research ecosystem drives the discovery side of a research university. It can be framed simply, but keeping harmony among the parts is challenging: if one component becomes “overgrown,” which can happen simply through success, another component suffers due to lack of resources. By neglecting one part of the system, we hobble the entire enterprise, limiting growth and impact. Great research universities continuously monitor and proactively adjust the entire network of resource relationships, identifying needs, measuring results, and assessing opportunities for high-impact growth. It takes an ecosystem to propel discovery; it takes diligence to sustain the ecosystem. Universities with robust ecosystems drive progress for their own stakeholders and for society.

Jay Walsh