Engineering for Impact: Practices of Civil and Environmental Engineering Scholars
The latest installment in Ithaka S+R’s series of Research Support Services projects investigates the research practices and support needs of civil and environmental engineering scholars. Today we are excited to publish the project’s capstone report. The field of civil and environmental engineering tackles pressing issues relating to our built and natural environments – from climate change to urban drinking water, bridge and highway upkeep to natural disaster planning. The need for research solutions to these problems makes understanding the work of civil and environmental engineering scholars crucial. It also poses unique challenges – and opportunities – for stakeholders including academic libraries, universities, technology developers, research funders, and professional societies, who can help position the field to effectively respond.
This project was carried out with the generous support of the American Society of Civil Engineers and in partnership with researchers at eleven academic libraries in the United States and Canada. Each library wrote a report and made recommendations to improve support for civil and environmental engineering scholars at their own institutions. Ithaka S+R’s capstone report complements these findings by stepping back to evaluate the broader research support ecosystem in which civil and environmental engineering scholars operate. Although previous projects have studied other fields with a strong applied component, including agriculture and public health, our report shows that the field of civil and environmental engineering is unique in its close relationship with industrial partners, including government agencies, NGOs, and private companies.
Industry is not just a recipient of academic civil and environmental engineering research – it is a research partner. Far from simply providing project funding, industry organizations and individuals provide crucial data, contribute expertise, and shape future research directions. Although industry-academia partnerships can pose ethical concerns in some fields, interviewees overwhelmingly spoke of industry partners as positive actors. Moreover, good industry-academia partnerships are mutually beneficial and self-perpetuating. Industry partners gain research-based solutions to technical problems and innovation needs, while scholars gain funding, access to data, and the opportunity to see their work effect real improvements, whether in their local communities or around the world.
Although many of these industry-academia partnerships are thriving, our findings suggest that scholars face significant challenges in communicating their research to industry. Many civil and environmental engineering scholars publish in trade magazines, writing construction “standards” and government reports, attending professional conferences, and delivering workshops. However, university tenure and performance evaluations place little value on these activities, preferring to reward instead only peer-reviewed academic articles. It is therefore difficult for some researchers, especially those who have not yet attained tenure, to justify the time and effort required to communicate their research findings to industry partners effectively. Our recommendations urge universities and others to systematically incentivize innovative and effective industry communications in order to strengthen essential academia-industry partnerships.
Another implication of the close relationship between civil and environmental engineering researchers and industry is that open access publishing – whether “green” or “gold” – is unlikely to be a panacea for research impact. Although civil and environmental engineering scholars are concerned about shaping public narratives around infrastructure, the environment, and climate change, their primary “public” remains engineers and engineering organizations – groups who don’t typically read academic journals. If the goal is to put civil and environmental engineering research into the hands of practitioners, we recommend investing in new and better forms of practitioner-facing research communication – videos, searchable research digests, smartphone apps. Universities must also recognize these types of communications as valuable scholarly outputs.
Industry partnerships are not the only area in which research support services for civil and environmental engineers can be improved. In fact, many of the challenges interviewees identified resonate with the experiences of scholars in other applied, interdisciplinary, and STEM fields. Our findings suggest potential interventions to help scholars collaborate more effectively and more often; to increase uptake of library services and information technologies; to improve lab group workflows and data management; to train graduate students in essential research skills; and to enable more efficient data sharing. These recommendations point to the innovations necessary to support civil and environmental engineering scholars’ research.
Ithaka S+R’s Research Support Services program illuminates the unique practices and needs of scholars in a variety of disciplines – as well as the common challenges they face. Research teams for our language and literature project recently began conducting interviews; a project on Indigenous studies, employing Indigenous methodologies, is also underway; and we are looking ahead to future projects in psychology and computer and electrical engineering. In parallel with these studies of faculty research needs, we are also conducting a new series of Teaching Support Services projects. Our first iteration of this series, on instructional support needs in undergraduate-level business teaching, will be followed by projects on teaching with primary sources and teaching data literacy.