The Future of Research in Universities

More Interdisciplinary Research and Collaboration Moving Forward, According to Admin and Professors

“Universities are but points of convergence […] of knowledge, and this knowledge comes from sources that are very, very diverse,” said Professor Lucie Lamarche (centre). Photo Michael Wrobel

The university researchers of tomorrow will contemplate the world in a more interdisciplinary way, collaborate more with organizations outside the education sector and be more technologically sophisticated, according to a panel discussion held on Saturday as part of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation’s 10th annual conference on public policy issues.

Panellist Graham Carr, vice-president of research and graduate studies at Concordia, told The Link after the discussion that not every researcher or professor needs to become a specialist in new technologies, but that Concordia has shown how teaching and research activities making use of new technologies can “move research and [the] training of students in exciting new directions.”

“I think, in relative terms, Concordia is a leader in terms of digital humanities,” he said, mentioning the strengths of the university’s design and computation arts programs, which are “heavy users of very advanced technology.”

He said Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling is an example of a research facility that not only has “an orientation and a philosophy” but also a “sophisticated understanding of the potential, the possibilities of digital culture.”

Additionally, he said that Concordia and other universities are increasingly creating new physical spaces that promote the interaction of researchers in different academic disciplines, such as one of Concordia’s science buildings on the Loyola campus.

Carr said the university’s Richard J. Renaud Science Pavilion, inaugurated in September 2003, was built according to a more traditional model of individual research labs. He said the two-year-old Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics building, on the other hand, uses a different approach—an “open bench philosophy.”

“There’s no individual ownership of space; the biochemists, the chemists, the biologists, the engineers, the biostatisticians and the physics [professors]—they’re all together and the students are all together,” he said, referring to the research centre inaugurated in 2011.

“They’re in a space where they’re suddenly able to have conversations and exchange ideas, and they get to develop an understanding and familiarity of other kinds of research that you just don’t get in another environment,” he continued.

Speaking more generally about all universities, Carr said he’s concerned that graduate programs in some disciplines still train students in “fairly classical ways” that might succeed in imparting foundational knowledge, but are “not necessarily preparing students very effectively for [the] range of opportunities that might await them after graduation.”

Panellist Lucie Lamarche, a legal researcher and professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, told the audience that there’s a need for “co-creation”—that is, more collaboration with organizations in civil society operating outside post-secondary educational institutions.

“Universities are no longer that prestigious, [or] the exclusive or primary centres of knowledge,” she said. “There’s a relationship of co-responsibility and co-dependency between all the actors of civil society and universities.”

“Universities are but points of convergence […] of knowledge, and this knowledge comes from sources that are very, very diverse,” she continued.

Lamarche told The Link after the panel discussion that civil society and universities must truly be “equal partners” in research.

Frédéric Mérand, the director of the Centre for International Studies and Research at the Université de Montréal, said researchers often use the model of research used in the United States as a “primary reference.”

He said there’s no easy answer, but becoming more pluralistic and integrating the global research community will involve avoiding using only the “validation criteria” found in the Western research tradition.

Nandini Ramanujam, the executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University, told the audience that the challenge for researchers in the social sciences in particular will be “knowledge translation.” She said ideology, inertia and ignorance mean that a lot of research never actually has much of an impact on public policy.

“What’s the point of writing yet another thesis of 300 pages on corruption when we know all the definitions of corruption and we know how it erodes the rule of law and know what it does to democratic institutions?” she said.

“The challenge for social sciences is to think a little bit more like science. […] Somehow [researchers in the social sciences must be] more result-oriented.”