As a geoscientist, I applaud President Biden’s ambitious vision of reducing carbon emissions by half by 2030 and 100% clean electricity by 2035. Because attaining these goals will require a good deal of research and development to shift to electricity production from zero-emitting sources, research-intensive institutions of higher education have an important role to play.

Yet as a faculty member and administrator at such an institution, I can attest that academia has some reckoning to do in order to truly engage in the battle to save the planet. Universities’ antiquated promotion and tenure system, originally designed to protect academic freedom, is rendering higher education unresponsive to the needs of society in more ways than one. It presents perverse incentives, precludes inclusion of a broad range of diverse perspectives so crucial for transformative innovation, and actually prevents researchers from pursuing the high-risk endeavors that can lead to the breakthrough discoveries and technologies the public needs so desperately.

Instead, scientists trained to develop deep expertise in one narrow area end up speaking 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 critical to scientists, because we are among the people doing the research that can uncover some of the most devastating effects of climate change and, if acted upon, help alleviate them.

My colleagues also feel the gap between the task before us and the incentives to achieve it. At a pre-pandemic professional conference, I attended a panel discussion about how important it is that the public understand our findings. Packed with some 500 scientists, the room crackled with a simultaneous sense of urgency and foreboding. The panelists urged us to engage legislators, fellow citizens, anyone who would listen.

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

At the end of the session, I stood up and asked how our institutions were going to value the work society needs scientists to do. Calls for outreach and communication are well and good, but no rational scientist can afford to heed them if, come promotion and tenure time, faculty are measured by only the centuries-old metrics of publications, number of doctoral students, and numerical teaching evaluations. Isn’t it time, I asked, that our field takes a critical look at our reward and advancement system?

To my surprise, the room erupted in applause. Clearly others saw what I did: that the reward and advancement system has become a barrier. Although efforts have been made to broaden the evaluation metrics at some select institutions, a profession-wide re-imagining has never been attempted.

The good news is that many administrators can at least state an alternative vision, and faculty have expressed a desire for change. My own institution, Oregon State University, has made some strides recognizing work — in research, teaching, or service — to advance diversity and inclusivity and to value entrepreneurialism in academia; addressing climate change requires both of these 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 devise an advancement system that allows the profession to evolve while still preserving academic freedom and thought-leadership.

The right incentive system would achieve a number of ends.

It would allow research scientists to be free to retain the portions of the system that work well, while expanding how impact can be achieved beyond the traditional metrics.

It could enable researchers to effectively communicate the importance and application of their results to policy-makers or angel investors so climate-friendly technologies are developed quickly and adopted seamlessly.

Scientists would be empowered to meaningfully engage with underserved communities that are affected by their research, and to engage students who come from a variety of backgrounds so the workforce can be diversified and better ideas can emerge.

In the age of “big data,” scientists would be able to take the time to find ways to meaningfully curate and more openly share their data and collaborate across disciplines in order to find overarching solutions to our global climate problem.

And scientists would be rewarded for working closely with government agencies and private industry to bring their research to bear on perhaps the biggest problem society has ever faced.

By designing our evaluation system from the ground up, higher education can catalyze university researchers to be the dogged, gritty risk-takers, change-makers, and innovators the public needs them to be and empower them to meet and exceed bold emission goals, engineer climate solutions, and enable a more just, inclusive society.

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