Research Universities Addressing Grand Challenges

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The CNI Interviews Podcast | Season 2, Episode 6

Donald Waters, Senior Scholar for CNI, talks about his project to investigate what scholars need to address societal grand challenges such as climate change, global pandemics, forced migration, racism, and inequality. Waters' project aims to identify what libraries and IT organizations can do to support research in these areas.

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Gerry Bayne: This is Gerry Bayne at the Coalition for Networked Information Spring 2023 Meeting. I'm here with Donald Waters, senior scholar for CNI. Thanks for being here, Don.

Donald Waters: Thank you, Gerry.

Gerry Bayne: Could you please tell us about your project called information infrastructure to address societal grand challenges, and why you wanted to investigate these questions?

Donald Waters: Sure. Thanks for having me. The topic is one that has been swirling around in my head for a while, and it's basically a needs assessment. Find out what scholars need in terms of information infrastructure, and I'm particularly focused on the needs of scholars who are addressing what are called grand challenges. These are big, complicated, sometimes called wicked problems that are difficult to address because they're difficult to define in some cases and require lots of hands on deck. It's almost intrinsically interdisciplinary.

And the question I'm trying to address for the CNI community is how can libraries and IT organizations support the research in those areas? The grand challenges include lots of things: climate change, pandemics, forced migration. They also get into other kinds of questions like racism and inequality. They're very difficult, but they're existential in a lot of ways, especially the climate change problem. Universities are turning to these questions increasingly, and my purpose is to identify what libraries are already doing, what researchers need them to be doing, and what they might do.

Gerry Bayne: That's an ambitious, ambitious undertaking.

Donald Waters: Well, it is. It comes at a time when the public's questioning the value of higher education. There was a study by Ithaca last year, and this came at the time when I started formulating this question, where they were looking at institutional missions and finding that many institutions were turning their attention to public issues to address this concern of the public. And those included these kinds of grand challenge questions, not always and not explicitly all the time, but they're clearly focused on the public good they serve, not the vocational needs of their students. They're trying to raise the public's eye to these larger questions. And I think that's worthwhile. And I think the libraries and the other support organizations should be equally focused on that mission term.

Gerry Bayne: Given the scope of what you're talking about, what are you hoping to achieve in terms of outcomes?

Donald Waters: Well, as you said, it's a huge problem, and it's scary, keeps me up at night because how am I going to get my arms around this? And I think the way I'm approaching this is not to get into the details of climate change research. I don't have the expertise for that. I don't have the time. It's a-

Gerry Bayne: You can't get into the weeds on these big questions because you'll just be researching forever, right?

Donald Waters: Exactly. But what I can do, in ways, to control the study is control who I'm looking at, what they're doing, and what kind of assistance or support they need. So I decided, and partly because of the nature of these questions, the university doesn't organize research on big interdisciplinary problems because the university's organized around disciplines and departments. Where you find this research is in centers and institutes where the faculty express their interest in certain questions and have the freedom to bring in different parties to work with them. And that's where the action is in this case.

And so the way I'm trying to manage the problem is first narrow down the problem to looking at these institutes and centers that are focused on environmental problems, climate change, and then look at some of the research going on in those centers and institutes and how they are managing the information that they need and generate. So the next problem is how do you select the ones you're going to look at because there are dozens and dozens and dozens of institutes and centers in every university, only some of them focused on these problems.

So that raises the next question, how am I trying to narrow the field so that I could get both a range of information about research needs in this area, or infrastructural needs, but not be focused on the same kinds of institutions? You would expect that the Ivies, for example, probably have lots of resources and everyone has a center or a big area, big center, associated with this kind of research.

So I've been looking at the nature of these problems of climate change, societal grand challenge, and one is that they are wicked. And the wickedness in this case as a technical definition is that they're difficult to define, they include scientific and other natural and social systems that are independent yet interdependent. And so if the climate changes, for example, requires social change, the social change that happens may in fact turn and influence what the climate looks like. So the independence and interdependence operates to make the problem definition shift and change as you go along. So that's the sense in which it's a wicked problem, but also because it's wicked, it's an intrinsically interdisciplinary problem, involves all these subsystems that are interacting and we have disciplines that focus on those subsystems, atmospheric systems, the oceanic systems, the biology, the economic incentives to change society, the sociological organizational issues, the psychological issues.

And then, what is particularly interesting for me is how they draw in the humanities. And I have a friend who has characterized the humanities as the imaginary disciplines because-

Gerry Bayne: Right. Interesting.

Donald Waters: ... they spur the imagination, they help you understand the way others have solved problems or the way they could solve problems in fiction, in religion, anthropology, and so on. And this imagination also has to come into play to help all the parties, us, the society, come up with ways of taking the information in and then using it to change how we're responding to these forces that could kill the planet.

Gerry Bayne: I'm going to repeat a question I gave to you just a minute ago because everything you've just said was really interesting and really-

Donald Waters: Didn't answer the question.

Gerry Bayne: Well, you did and you didn't. So this seems like such a grand challenge. What do you hope to be the outcome from this project-

Donald Waters: I did not get to the outcome.

Gerry Bayne: ... if you take the 50,000-foot view?

Donald Waters: I'm still in the middle of this. There's some interesting ideas that are emerging, and the first result is in looking at the variety of institutes and centers focused on the problem. I'm stunned at the amount of work that is being done and the variety of it and the interesting different ways in which disciplines are mixed and matched at the research level to address particular research questions. So that's one thing.

The second is, I'm fascinated by the ways in which research universities are organizing themselves to address these questions. And by that I mean, institutes and centers are really the property of faculty, and faculty have guidelines to follow when they set them up, but they're ultimately theirs. One of the things that I've noticed is that the concentration on this topic has led institutions to appropriate the problem at a higher level. For example, there's one institution that has, what they count, about fifty organizations, student organizations, faculty-led organizations, all kinds of things focused on climate change. And they've created an umbrella organization to help share information across all those different little pockets of activity and also to shape the direction by providing seed grant funds and so on, so that's another very interesting.

And another kind of organizational problem is to set up new schools to focus on schools of environmental studies. There's some around the country that have that already. Stanford got a big grant to set up a new one. So there's another kind of finding in this is that the organizations are actually addressing this problem in a substantial way.

Then the third finding, again, this is all tentative, but that the kinds of information needs are exactly what you expect them to be. They need collaboration tools. They need data management tools. They need access to the literature. They need tools to wrestle with and wrangle the data into an organization that they can analyze and publish. They're doing modeling and simulation and mapping and other kinds of visualizations. All of these things we know about. And over the last fifteen or twenty years, libraries have been reorganizing themselves to provide these kinds of services and infrastructure. What's really interesting to me is that because of the complicated nature of the problems, the investment that faculty and institutions are making in them and the interdisciplinarity of them, is that it's concentrating the need for those services so that it doesn't look like one-off-

Gerry Bayne: Right. Understood.

Donald Waters: ... services understood for this faculty or that faculty. It's concentrating the demand so that it looks like a real infrastructure, that there needs to be leadership and investment to shape it and serve the needs. So that's really where I am on this.

That's a hypothesis. I've got some good evidence already from the interviews that I've done at four different centers that this is the way it's looking, but I've got another six or seven months of research and to verify and complicate that finding.

Gerry Bayne: [inaudible 00:11:47]

Donald Waters: What is the variation? What helps guide certain institutions one way or the other? And going to pose the question this afternoon in the lightning round, I need help from the librarians and IT folks in institutions to see if they recognize this and if they do, what strategies have they been adopting to harden their resources and scale them to the needs that appear to be scaling up.

Gerry Bayne: So I'm going to end with an unrelated question. What do you think of the current initiatives to do open access in the humanities?

Donald Waters: Well, I have to say first that I've been semi-retired from this for several years.

Gerry Bayne: Sure.

Donald Waters: I'm still following it, but I am not in it in a way that I could be definitive. I know this is a complicated, difficult problem. I also come with some bias from my previous work at Mellon, which was, it's important to explore the area of open access and to find solutions where they can be found. But that open access, from my perspective, and even now, when I'm looking deeply into this research, open access isn't the biggest issue. It's the research that's the issue. And there are a variety of ways to disseminate research to make it available to different publics. And open access isn't, by any means, the only answer and shouldn't be the only answer, but I do recognize that it's a big part of the way funders, especially in the sciences, and my library colleagues, are looking at information access in a modern digital world.

And so where you can find those solutions, find them, but the solutions are elusive. And the Ivy Plus response to the OSTP memo a couple weeks ago is really telling, because it calls attention to the underlying problem of open access. And that, in its main concept, it requires the researcher to pay. And that puts a huge burden then on the research-intensive institutions. And even though they are wealthy, they can't afford to pay the kinds of fees that are being charged for their researchers to publish their research. And it's not likely that there's enough funding going on to be able to cover that amount either. And it takes us back to the original solution, which is interested parties should pay, and it's all parties, the reader and the producer. The question is, where's the balance?

And that's, I think, really, where I see the struggle right now is a struggle for a new balance in the system, so that information, particularly the journal literature, isn't so exorbitantly expensive or monographs aren't so exorbitantly expensive that the general public and those not in universities can afford to read them, but yet, at the same time, it doesn't break the bank and put a impossible burden. And there is no solution that nobody pays.

Gerry Bayne: Right. That's true.

Donald Waters: That's where I am. I am encouraged. The main thing I'm encouraged about is that the digital publication mechanisms have solidified and continue to persist and exist, and people are looking for ways to pay for them, and that is a wonderful thing to see.

Gerry Bayne: Well, Don Waters, thank you so much for your time.

Donald Waters: Thank you for having me again.

Gerry Bayne: Great.

Donald Waters: Good questions.

This episode features:

Donald Waters
Senior Scholar