Research would gain from stronger ties with parties outside universities, says research policy expert Mats Benner. (Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT)

Without cooperation, social progress will come to a halt

Published Nov 22, 2019

How can universities collaborate in new ways – across subject boundaries and outside academia – in order to contribute towards solutions to ever more complex social problems?
“As often as not, research is pursued in very narrow corridors,” says Mats Benner, Professor of Research Policy, who wants to see more cross boundary partnerships.

Mats Benner, research policy expert.

What expectations are there on universities to make the world a better place and how does this affect the way universities work, build networks, research and cooperate? These are some of the questions being investigated in a joint research project between KTH and Lund University School of Economics and Management, that is headed by Mats Benner , Visiting Professor at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH.

The focus is on the role of universities as community builders – a role that has gradually changed. The traditional understanding that research and education should contribute to economic growth, via enterprise and patents, has bit by bit been superseded by the need to address major and complicated social challenges with global reach, Benner argues.

“This means that interfaces with society are changing and that the view of how universities should work - both within and between subjects, for example, or via cooperation with community organisations - has come under pressure. How universities act and react to this pressure will determine their opportunities to have an impact.”

Broader cooperation

He would like to see broader cooperation between different parties and organisations outside academia in order to promote more sustainable social development, improve social conditions and to protect jobs and growth.

The question of what contribution universities can make takes on added importance at a time when facts and science are increasingly being questioned:

“When the response to complex problems is simple answers, research and education become critical factors if we are to avoid these kinds of simple solutions and seek answers that are sensible and sustainable in the long-term instead.”

Sustainability and climate, a typical collaborate issue with numerous ingredients, will be given specific attention within the project. This concerns both knowledge and how to manage negative environment effects, practical studies and models for how we should live sustainably along with social and political expectations and forms of governance.

Narrow corridors

“All these aspects overlap with each other and this affects the conditions for the research to a very large extent. What these patterns of cooperation look like and how they are developed within different social areas, including climate and sustainability, are what we are researching into.”

What is your perception of what kind of role universities have as influencers today, is it sufficiently strong or have they been side tracked?

“It is both too big and too small at one and the same time, to my mind. Universities have a very big influence, maybe too much, when research is promoted as the solution with a capital S to a long list of different social issues. Scientific knowledge is important when it comes to social change, but this also covers a variety of different factors.”

“At the same time, this influence sometimes seems to be too little, as often as not research is pursued in pretty narrow corridors and would probably benefit from interfacing with large and fundamental social processes as parameters and foundation for the enterprise.” 

Text: Christer Gummeson

The research project “Universities as Community Builders” is a continuation of a project that began in 2016 and consists of two researcher groups from Lund University and KTH. Vinnova has provided financing of SEK 20 million for the period 2019–2023.

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Last changed: Nov 22, 2019