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Published 31 May 2017

Insights from international academies workshop

To launch our 150th anniversary celebrations, we held a special symposium with international colleagues from other research-based academies and related organisations to discuss six themes. A summary of insights on each theme is provided.

1. Whither or wither?

Foreseeing the changing role of an academy – what will keep academies relevant in an ever changing society?

Even though they differ in longevity from over 350 years to newly created, academies for research and scholarship around the world face many of the same issues at this point in their lives. Whilst continuing roles that are clearly in the public interest can be identified, academies need to adapt and change in the way they operate in order to be recognised as still relevant in the communities they seek to serve.

Two key communities to be served are those who are seeking advice on important and often complex public issues, and the research community itself.

The academy that retains future relevance within its own nation will likely have broadened its approach to excellence.  It will have recognised that intellectual excellence can be demonstrated in increasingly diverse ways.  For example, for technology and engineering an emphasis on the impact of the intellectual endeavour of the person is appropriate. The successful academy will also have considered how to make itself relevant to young people.

Successful academies know how to work with the complexity of policy process. They get involved early in the processes that exist e.g. OECD policy development, and know effective foresighting needs a lot more than just assembling Fellows/experts. Academies need people with expertise that are also clever enough to keep messages simple and reassure the public to trust that the complexity is being properly managed behind the simplicity of the messages.

Academies continue to walk delicately between competing interests – funders, politicians, universities, other research organisations, the private sector and researchers themselves.  Academies have to be vigilant and be guardians over impartiality in decision-making if they are to remain relevant. This is much easier if the academy is economically independent. Whilst high quality evidence analysis and synthesis must come first, there is a need and pressure to maintain and diversify sources of funding.

Academies have to be seen as quite different to universities while having a complementary relationship.  Academies are not a small circle within a university world.  However, academies can and do add value to university life, and to the wider scholarly and research communities that exist in all nations.


Royal Society Te Apārangi 150th Symposium Powhiri 5 April 2017 from Royal Society Te Apārangi on Vimeo.

2. Public engagement and public trust 

In an age in which citizens are using the web to access science and other knowledge, and selecting information they trust, what is the changing role of academies to provide expert advice in communities?

The academies pride themselves as being focal points for intellectual leadership and the giving of impartial advice, analysing complex issues or evidence and providing to others clearly understandable but objective digests of evidence and information.  Yet academies are by nature slow acting, and their time scales for doing things are often challenged by the desire of those they seek to serve to seek immediate answers.

In particular, the growth of social media (a low trust, high emotion environment) has been highly disruptive for academies because the ways in which academies have assembled and distributed information were developed before the communication revolution of social media. Academies can only succeed in the future if they seek to engage communities in dialogue, rather than expecting their broadcast messages to be accepted as the most trustworthy information, simply because of what an academy is. Academies need to embrace new ways of doing things, including actively using social media, and being part of ongoing discussions, not just pushing messages when a major report is released.

This means that academies need to invest in bringing aboard people with future-focussed communications expertise to assist craft the messages and select channels in a way that the advice of academies is influential. This is not to neglect traditional communication channels, but rather to use further channels to reach a greater range and number of people.

Lapses in the quality of research and perceptions that the research community is not sufficiently maintaining high standards also contribute to the breakdown of trust in the messages of learned bodies like academies. This whilst the public may retain a level of willingness to trust research, it has reduced the social licence granted to scientists and researchers more generally. Re-developing trust may include creating greater public visibility when issues of poor quality or unethical research are addressed. Experts who admit mistakes and are shown to be able to deal with and learn from them are more likely to be believable than those who appear defensive. Rebuilding trust each day needs to occur through open dialogue and demonstrating both humility and a willingness to serve humanity, rather than unwittingly creating a perception of arrogance through seeking to be acknowledged as a holder of world class expertise.

3. Supporting diversity in the research workforce

How do we ensure participation by indigenous people and recent migrants as well as addressing gender and gender preference issues?

The extent and nature of diversity issues has been studied much more comprehensively in the last decade, and data are emerging which show important trends.  These data have been utilised to develop a number of programmes, with the primary focus being on gender. There are common elements to successful programmes for addressing lack of diversity such as open reporting of data and progress, acknowledging there is often a pipeline problem, ensuring criteria do not penalise those whose career pathway is different to others and working to eliminating unconscious bias in processes. The further stage of quality marking, such as in the Athena SWAN programme also can speed progress.

Recognition of excellence within the research and scholarly community is a cornerstone of the life of every academy.  The valuing of Fellowship is still strong in many parts of the research and scholarly community, but there are challenges to ensure the academy embraces all worthwhile forms of intellectual endeavour without being seem to diminish the standard in the eyes of those elected via a traditional route to Fellowship.  Even those academies which cast their net wider through measuring intellectual endeavour though innovation, impact of research, and even leadership still suffer from gender diversity, even though their fellowship is increasingly diverse in discipline and employment context.

Those academies which focus on the scholarly excellence of research may face greatest challenges when seeking to work with indigenous people as the way in which excellence is measured in different epistemologies can be very different.  Some indigenous communities find the present concept of an academy not particularly relevant so there is a need for the academy to listen to such communities to identify inclusive ways of assessing and valuing of excellence in research and scholarship. 

4. Blurring of boundaries

Research is increasingly carried out in cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary teams. How do academies respond to really complex issues that are relevant to, or draw on all disciplinary domains (humanities, science, social science, applied sciences, technology and engineering)?

The important issues and problems that academies can choose, or be invited to address are increasingly likely to be multi-disciplinary. Academies thus have no real choice but to embrace new ways of doing things that draw on the strength of advanced knowledge in specific disciplines, but create environments where new insights can emerge by constructive interplay between disciplines. Academies can create the right environment, and provide participants the freedom to explore issues in new ways.

Constructive and insightful interplay does not occur osmotically simply by placing a mix of people of different disciplines and skill bases together.  Rather there is a need to engineer into the group cognitive diversity, have them looking at the issue with different lenses and take them outside their comfort zones by building a program to challenge then into thinking about different futures. Inclusion of lay people can be beneficial as it gives an audience perspective and an immediate focus on public interest. Early career researchers often bring different ways of thinking that create new insights.

The Chair is critical. He or she must drive the project, provide challenges and have the interpersonal skills to ensure disparity of views and outlooks does not overtake the collaborative approach seeking consensus.  Trust within the working group and respect for what each other is bringing to the project including a sharing and understanding of values is important.

The ideal outcome of a project would be ideas-focussed but rooted in research principles. There are challenges in breaking projects into small tasks in that the different approaches in more narrowly focussed task groups might not integrate well at the later synthesis stage.

One key question is how to undertake multi-disciplinary projects in a short time frame? Can academies be more agile? Workshops and discussion fora are mechanisms to prompt and support serendipity, encourage people and groups to step out of their comfort zone and to be adventurous as individuals, and can sometimes expedite the process.

5. Role of academies in exemplifying good generic research practice

Should they be the guardians of good practice, a point of reference on which others may draw?

Historically, many academies have not seen themselves as having a significant role in setting and maintaining good standards of research and scholarly practice. However, it is now acknowledged that academies can have, and indeed should have a greater role. The protection of the integrity of the research system, and the championing of the public interest are important if challenges of non-reproducibility of results, data falsification and research integrity more generally are to be addressed to maintain public trust.  Ultimately public trust is enhanced if there is a body that is demonstrably the protector of the public interest.

A great advantage of an academy is that (generally) they are not employers of researchers nor have significant reputational risk in contributing to addressing such issues, but there are few countries in which the academy has a specific jurisdiction.  In this respect, New Zealand, through the Royal Society of New Zealand Act, possibly has one of the strongest mandates.

Whatever the national arrangements, by suitable partnership with other research organisations where there is a shared understanding of the role of the academy as the point of reference for good practice there can benefits. There are already examples of academies or academy groupings stepping up to provide guidance and leadership, and instilling a belief that research organisations can benefit by using the Academy as a point of reference for good practice.

A successful national approach will ensure that all new entrants to the research community receive a sound grounding in the basics of competent, careful and ethical research practice, commit to maintaining personal standards, and acknowledge they have a role to maintain the standards in the research community generally by acting when they see poor research practice. The academy has a leadership role in exemplifying and nurturing good research practice and culture. Its members are leaders in the research community so others will follow their example. Academies should no longer be reticent to step forward.

Where allegations of poor research practice or lack of integrity arise, there are benefits if the decision maker on such cases is one with a level of independence in which the public will have confidence.  Use of lay members, and establishing an identity for the decision maker that is separate from employers or funders of the decision body may be important.  The academy, through being charged with leadership, may be able to take the lead in providing assistance to research organisations and funding bodies to deal with difficult issues.

Whilst there may be a paucity of recent examples of academies taking a strong lead role in research practice matters, there is historic evidence that academies can contribute to maintenance of public confidence and protection of the public interest in a way no other participants in the research community are able to. Academies that lead on research practice issues are likely to strengthen their own relevance to the public, government and the research community.

6. Collaborating with developing nations

Science and technology capability is vitally important to developing nations, yet such nations struggle to maintain good standards.  How can academies collaborate more effectively with developing nations?  

Whilst international collaboration and interaction has become part of the mainstream activity of almost all academies, extending that collaboration to developing nations is a real and different challenge.  Collaborating with the research and scholarly community in a developing nation is not just an extension of other international collaborations an academy might undertake.  Rather it needs a different, highly empathetic and patient approach. Some academies will experience such significant logistic difficulties that attempting to collaborate with developing nations, may not be appropriate for them, for example if they are geographically remote, likely to have significant turnover of personnel, and their own nation has no strong relationship with the developing nation.  

In general, developing nations have difficulties in establishing and maintaining strong public institutions of various types, and this often manifests in difficulties in ensuring that basic infrastructure (both physical and soft) operates effectively and reliably. Research organisations in such environments will aspire to conduct their activities to internally-benchmarked standards but face significant difficulties not seen in developed nations.  Such organisations can and do produce some high quality work and are motivated to widen the pool of their people who operate to high standards of research and scholarship.

Rather than a top down approach often called capacity building, there are opportunities for building collaborative relationships which are successful because they are enduring and respectful.  It takes time to build trusting and meaningful relationships, and to understand the complex political environment and relationships with Aid agencies in which governments and research organisations have to operate.  Hence those who wish to collaborate need to show long term commitment and to listen and respond to requests rather than push their own ideas. Success is most likely when the collaborator takes the time to understand the values and customs, and even the language of the community in which he or she is working.

Reciprocity building should be at centre of all collaborations.  Collaborations and relationships must respect multiple ways of constructing knowledge. Collaborations and relationships should be critically reflective of how benefits are distributed.


Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi