To help solve the climate problem, universities need to rethink the tenure and promotion system ”Yale Climate Connections


As a geoscientist, I applaud President Biden’s ambitious vision halve carbon emissions by 2030 and 100% clean electricity by 2035. Since achieving these goals will require a great deal of research and development to shift to producing electricity from zero-emission sources, high-intensity higher education institutions research have an important role to play.

Yet, as a faculty member and administrator of such an institution, I can attest that academia has an account to be taken in genuinely engaging in the battle to save the planet. The outdated university promotion and tenure system, originally designed to protect academic freedom, renders higher education insensitive to the needs of society in more ways than one. He presents perverse incentives, prevents the inclusion of a wide range of diverse perspectives so crucial for transformative innovation, and in fact prevents researchers to continue high-risk efforts it can lead to breakthrough discoveries and technologies that the public desperately needs.

Instead, scientists trained to develop in-depth expertise in a narrow field end up talking about it using specialized, specific, and esoteric words in articles published in obscure journals that are not widely accessible.

The ability to innovate and communicate is essential for scientists, as we are among the people doing research who can uncover some of the most devastating effects of climate change and, if acted upon, help mitigate them.

My colleagues also feel the gap between the task ahead and the incentives to get there. At a pre-pandemic professional conference, I attended a panel discussion on the importance of the public understanding our findings. Filled with some 500 scientists, the room crackled with a simultaneous sense of urgency and apprehension. The panelists urged us to engage lawmakers, our citizens, anyone who would listen to them.

Yet I noticed that, as the calls to action intensified, the young scientists seemed to be crumbling, as if they were crushed by the weight of expectations on them.

At the end of the session, I got up and asked how our institutions are going to value the work that society needs from scientists. Calls for awareness and communication are good and good, but no rational scientist can afford to heed them if, at the time of promotion and tenure, faculty are only measured by measurements. centuries of publications, the number of doctoral students and digital evaluations of teaching. Isn’t it time, I asked, for our field to take a hard look at our reward and advancement system?

To my surprise, the room erupted with applause. It is clear that others have seen what I have done: that the reward and advancement system has become a hindrance. Although efforts have been made to broaden the assessment parameters in some selected institutions, a profession-wide reimagining has never been attempted.

The good news is that many administrators can at least state an alternate vision, and faculty have expressed a desire for change. My own institution, Oregon State University, has made strides in recognizing work – in research, teaching or service – to advance diversity and inclusion and to value entrepreneurship in the community. university; the fight against climate change requires these two approaches.

But this puzzle cannot be solved one institution at a time; it must be approached as a profession. I challenge research-intensive institutions to design a system of advancement that allows the profession to evolve while preserving academic freedom and thought leadership.

The right incentive system would achieve a number of objectives.

This would allow scientific researchers to be free to keep the parts of the system that work well, while expanding the way in which impact can be achieved beyond traditional parameters.

This could allow researchers to effectively communicate the importance and application of their findings to policy makers or angel investors so that climate-friendly technologies are developed quickly and adopted in a transparent manner.

Scientists would be empowered to engage meaningfully with underserved communities that are affected by their research and to involve students from diverse backgrounds so that the workforce can be diverse and better ideas can emerge.

In the age of ‘big data’, scientists would be able to take the time to find ways to more openly store and share their data, and to collaborate across disciplines to find comprehensive solutions to our global climate problem.

And scientists would be rewarded for working closely with government agencies and the private sector to bring their research to perhaps the most serious problem society has ever faced.

By designing our assessment system from the ground up, higher education can catalyze university researchers to become determined and serious risk-takers, change-makers and innovators that the public needs and empower them. ways to meet and exceed bold emissions targets, engineer. climate solutions and enable a fairer and more inclusive society.

H. Tuba Özkan-Haller, Ph.D., is associate vice president for administration and research development at Oregon State University, where she is also a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. She is a member of Public Voices with the OpEd project.


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