Starting Socially Responsible University-Industry Engagement With Governance: Lessons From A Coal Seam Gas Research Centre

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Liz Hardie
University of Queensland

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What is socially responsible research in Australia?
Socially and ethically relevant research and knowledge exchange is increasingly on the agenda of research funders. Differences between the disciplines make it challenging to ascribe meaning to the needs of society and the impacts of research. The fundamentally different situations and orientations for universities and industry partners make it even more challenging to describe and quantify how university-industry partnerships (UIPs) engage with the wider society.
Motivation for study - Recently the accumulative impact of rising numbers of UIPs is fuelling concerns about how socially responsible research is governed by universities. The undesirable impacts of UIPs, including perceived biases that align with business interests, have caught the attention of the community (Bridgman, 2009; White & Bero, 2010). With every university having to demonstrate ‘social responsibility in its activities’ as obliged by legislation, it is timely to explore the social responsibility of UIPs. Exploring how an Australian UIP with the oil and gas sector (O&G) is governed, in the context of social responsiveness is the motivation for this paper and contributes to my PhD thesis.
Introducing the case study - Queensland has an ambitious investment in coal seam gas (CSG) and is the first place in the world to convert CSG into liquefied natural gas (LNG). While the industry has developed rapidly in Queensland, other regions around the world have experienced extensive legislative reviews and bans. The industry wants to understand the subsurface / surface context to improve industrial processes while communities, regulators and other industries want to know more about the effects of the nascent industry. The Centre for Coal Seam Gas at the University of Queensland (UQ-CCSG) was established amidst this technoscientific debate in 2011. I was a participant observer of the UQ-CCSG from 2013-2016.
Contribution to theory, policy and practice - The social responsibility of UIPs is being institutionalised by the managerialism and research impact agendas - the desire of research funders to quantify the benefits of research in university and broad uptake of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the not-for-profits. There is a lack of common conceptualization about the broad range of socially responsible and responsive practices in UIPs - I identified over sixty terms referring to university-industry engagement and many ways of UIPs engaging with society. This paper contributes to the organisational social responsibility literature with a conceptual framework for socially responsible UIP governance logics based on the UIP literature and empirical research. Understanding how UIPs are socially responsible starts with an appreciation of how a contemporary university environment operates where academic, political and industrial activities overlap. UIPs are characterised by ‘polycentric governance’, undertaken by both state and non-state actors rather than a single dominant and authoritative regulator (Black, 2008). A mix of regulatory strategies ranging from legal enforcement to persuasion and incentives steer the practices (Ayres and Braithwaite, 1992). UIPs are shaped through government policy and regulatory initiatives focussed on shaping specific features of the economic and science systems (Popp Berman, 2012). Increasingly, universities are party to reporting frameworks that are devised outside of the academe. Generally, UIPs manage multiple stakeholder interests which shape governance structures and practices. The practices are sometimes co-produced but more often are a series of transactions and transitions (Frost, Hattke, & Reihlen, 2016; Miller, McAdam, & McAdam, 2014).
It is impossible to reduce the ‘modus operandi’ of UIPs to a single governance framework as various specific and internally consistent governance logics exist:
1. Scholarly peer communities, governed through publications, presentations, participation and contributions to scholarly communities;
2. professional communities, governed through publications, presentations, participation and contributions to professional/occupation communities, accreditation, codes of conduct;
3. New Public Management (NPM), governed by legislation, reporting, metrics;
4. market mechanisms, governed through reputation rankings and metrics, including rankings, student/staff recruitment, repeat business, high UIP/contract research income, philanthropy income; and
5. participatory and democratic processes including committees, engaged scholarship activities, community participation, governed through accountability.
Concluding remarks - In the Australian context, socially responsible research has many guises and is frequently subsumed into discussions about ethics, misconduct, impact, engagement, risk and resourcing. The prevailing research governance arrangements seemed to be designed to allay concerns associated with human health. How energy research impacts on communities, property rights and the sustainability of the environment is not considered. The tensions between private, public and national interests within UIPs and the public controversies that sometimes accompany them, point to the need for university leaders to define what socially responsible research is in various disciplinary/industry contexts and be accountable to the broad range of university stakeholders. The language and framing of responsible research provides a conceptual framework to explore how universities engage industry partners, the government and communities on matters of public interest. Then the question becomes whether the Australian government drive to expand UIPs in the mining and energy sectors is socially responsive and responsible and whether the public-funding and legitimising of some industry sectors or industrial processes is detrimental to broader social goals.