Do academics live in a bubble?
The short answer: yes, I think we do. Being surrounded by academics and delving into research questions about the deepest truths of the universe can often alienate us from the “real-world” challenges. Academics can seem to be living in their Ivory Towers without a perspective of what happens on the ground. To have an impact on the people around us, we need to reconnect with the people outside of academia and keep their issues in mind when working on our research.
Market research: a learning example for scientists and engineers
As an engineer, I enjoy solving problems. In academia though, it is easy to fall into a hole where you spend endless time and money to build gadgets that nobody would use. It is important to consider—and potentially consult with—your end-user during the early stages of a research product project. I am currently enrolled in the faculty entrepreneurial learning academy offered by my institute, which is helping me accomplish exactly that goal. Although many faculty members may not see themselves as an entrepreneur—and I'm not sure if I see myself as one either—many of the skills required for both jobs (entrepreneur, faculty) are very similar. Both roles require raising funds (investors vs. grants), managing people (employees vs. lab members), and juggling multiple responsibilities (sales, technology development, and marketing vs. teaching, research, and service).
As a part of the faculty entrepreneurial learning academy, in the first few weeks, I'm learning about how to perform market research. I am reading market reports that are very different from peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that we are all used to reading. These reports are very useful in a complementary fashion. For example, one of the technologies we are developing in my lab is to make a tool that can diagnose which bug might be causing an infection and thus, predict which treatment is most likely to be effective. We are initially developed in this tool for animal health and with a focus on agricultural animals due to the strong connections of my department and college to agriculture. However, while conducting the market research, I learned that an equally important target to consider is companion animals due to a large number of pets in the country (~80 million each of cats and dogs). Thus, once our tools show promising results, we have many potential applications that I would not have considered initially. I encourage other academics to also look at similar resources for their work. An example of a few resources from my institute’s library is available here.
I have been fortunate to connect with potential end-users of my technology so that they can help determine which aspects of the technology are useful and which are not. Engagement and extension are important components of my institute and these help in grounding the academics.
What about fundamental research?
Some might feel that the role of universities is only to conduct the most fundamental research and focus on addressing questions like “What are the rules of life?” Fundamental research is critical for advancing knowledge. The outcomes of such research are rarely predictable. Numerous life-changing discoveries and inventions have come out of very fundamental questions. When conducting fundamental research, the key is to be able to communicate the potential of your work clearly (as highlighted recently by my colleague). I was reading an article earlier about the Feynman technique for explaining concepts and this method is directly applicable to academics working on fundamental problems. For example, in my lab, we are working on developing the ability to predict how microbes assemble to form communities (microbiomes). Using these predictions, we might be able to improve the health of humans, animals, plants, and the planet. Although the project is based on uncovering fundamental principles, it has exciting potential for widespread influence.
Currently, many academics do live in a bubble. Learning from other complementary fields (e.g. business) and improving our communication (e.g. by writing blog articles) can help us burst the bubble and be more grounded.