What Does the Future of Research Look Like? Gary Whitney of Huron Shares Higher Ed Leaders’ Predictions for the Field of Research
This podcast episode is part of the EdTech Times podcast series, Preparing Your Organization for the Next Generation Research Enterprise, sponsored by Huron.
In this time of higher ed disruption, even the top research institutions in the United States need to make a few changes. According to Gary Whitney, Managing Director at Huron, while some research leaders like to stick to traditional methods, they’ll eventually need to adjust to innovative trends, in order for their institutions to stay competitive, and to continue to stay up to date with specialized skills.
“The pace of change—it will ultimately catch up with you,” says Gary. “It’s happening in some pockets where it’s hard to find the expertise that you need for some of these things. And to be honest, I think that’s partly why cloud is doing as well as it is, too.”
“There are some very specialized skills you need to do some of these things effectively. And oftentimes, it’s hard to just go out in the general market and hire those skills, get them trained, and then keep them.”
Research institutions are looking to minimize the amount of time researchers spend on administrative tasks, so they can focus more on their areas of expertise. Gary says that new technologies like artificial intelligence can help these researchers save time.
“We’re going to have a number of discoveries that are going to be assisted by artificial intelligence playing a role in helping the researchers do their research,” he says. “You might have a whole system that’s helping you figure out what you should even be researching or helping you discover what makes sense from the data that you’re looking at.”
“So they might be able to actually help tie together things and anticipate issues before they actually happen, which would be a very cool result.”
Listen in to our interview with Gary Whitney to learn more about developing research methods and how research institutions are using emerging technologies to become more efficient.
Hannah Nyren: Hi, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today I am speaking with Gary Whitney, managing director at Huron. Hi Gary, how’s it going?
Gary Whitney: Hi Hannah, it’s going well.
Hannah Nyren: So Gary, can you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Gary Whitney: Sure. I’m one of the managing directors at Huron. And over the past 15 years, I’ve had the good fortune to probably work with close to 100 of the leading research and academic medical centers across the country, helping them shape an automation strategy for their research administrative processes.
Hannah Nyren: So, overall, how have you seen, you know, research institutions change over the time that even work with Huron?
Gary Whitney: Probably the biggest change that we’ve seen over that 15 years is just almost everything in the early days was paper. And that was recognized to be fairly inefficient from a process perspective. People really wanted to try and reduce the burden that the researchers were going through of having to apply for a grant, to fill out a conflict of interest disclosure, and all of this was was paper-based. So it’s the automation of those applications that’s been the biggest change we’ve seen over that period of time. Now, most organizations have some type of an automated system that they’re using.
Hannah Nyren: Right, and it’s not just more efficient, it’s better for the environment, right?
Gary Whitney: That is absolutely true. I remember very well the first meeting I went to of a compliance body and they pointed to a stack of papers which was probably a foot and a half high on the table, saying, “That’s what we’re eliminating.” You know, and it was that stack for the 15 different members that were there for that meeting. So some of our institutions actually justified the whole cost based on a paper savings which is, exactly as you point out Hannah, directly related to environmental savings.
Hannah Nyren: So I recently attended a panel discussion on the future research that you moderated at the Huron Research Software Users Group meeting in Boston during this panel you all discussed some research findings of your own from a survey. Can you tell me a little bit about this survey? And, you know, what was it about, who was surveyed, and what was the purpose?
Hannah Nyren: Sure. So we took these 10 trends that we had come up with, that again were more of a provocative statement about what the future might look like. And we put together a quick survey, sent that to all the people that had registered for the conference a week ahead of time, and asked them to rate how likely they thought each of these things would come to pass. And we were real fortunate we got over 50 percent response rates from all the attendees by the time we got to the conference. So we were able to aggregate all that data and then be able to present that back to the participants at one of the sessions there, that you got to attend.
Hannah Nyren: So what were the top trends that were identified in the survey?
Gary Whitney: One which we keep hearing over and over again, is security. And in fact I was just at another conference this week, of independent research institutions, and it was exactly top-of-mind for all the I.T. professionals there. So clearly, security is just something that we’re going to be living with for a number of years. They had an FBI agent at this conference this last week and he basically made this statement, he says “If people want to get into your network, they’re going to get into your networks. You just have to figure out what do you do once they’re there.” Kind of a sobering thought, but that’s clearly one of the top trends.
Gary Whitney: Another one which came up, is just the belief that the big discoveries in science over the next few years are going to come from across-disciplinary research, where you take people from multiple areas across the campus. They’re pulling people from humanities and putting them together with business people, putting them together with some other engineering people, and they’re coming up with big, big ideas, where you’re pulling the knowledge from a number of different people to put all that together. And then finally another one that came up is just the whole movement to the cloud. And this came out this last week also at the other conference I was at. Two years ago people were talking about moving to the cloud or thinking about it. Now they’re moving significant parts of their business there just for a variety of reasons. I think cost being one. Flexibility, the ability to burst if you need additional resources. It’s Immediately available to you through the cloud. So those were the three that came out on top.
Hannah Nyren: So what surprised you the most about your findings, what did you not expect that was produced in this research?
Gary Whitney: One of the ones for me personally, that I was a little surprised at was people didn’t see outsourcing as a big trend in the research administration area. And that may be partly the way that we framed the question, because again we were being somewhat provocative with these statements. We said, you know, by the year 2025 half of your standard research compliance activities would be outsourced to things like commercial IRBs, people to do your billing compliance, those types of things. And so people weren’t convinced that this was something that was going to to happen in this timeframe, even though what we’re seeing from our business, actually, is that there are a number of people who are starting to do this. And it’s not just the smaller organizations, oftentimes it’s the bigger organizations. It’s kind of like the cloud computing example. When you need extra capacity it’s nice to be able to just go external and find somebody, versus trying to hire five or 10 additional people internally within your organization. So that was probably the biggest surprise that hit me. And partly, that might have been just the way we framed the question.
Hannah Nyren: Maybe, I also found that surprising, because I think that you know outsourcing is so common in so many industries today, especially with the ability to work remotely, you know, with all the software capabilities.
Gary Whitney: Another one we were, discussing this afterwards too is partly, it’s the audience that we were asking it of would be some of the people that might actually have their jobs outsourced. And so oftentimes, if it’s something personal, that might affect the way that they might answer the question. So it could be a variety of things. Or it could just be something that we’re just starting to see the front end of that trend, and the bulk of the market doesn’t see that yet. But it sure feels like, from what we’re seeing in the marketplace, it’s coming.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, but I do also see that, you as a representative of a consulting organization that really focuses on technology and recent trends in innovation, you would kind of have a more futuristic perspective whereas, there are still a lot of people in higher ed who are doing things in a more traditional way.
Gary Whitney: Right. And so as you know the pace of change it will ultimately catch up with you. And I think that that, you know, we are seeing a lot of that happening. And, you know, to be honest it’s uh, it’s happening in some pockets where, it’s hard to find the expertise that you need for some of these things. And to be honest, I think that’s partly why cloud is doing as well as it is, too. As you know there are some very specialized skills you need to do some of these things effectively. And oftentimes it’s hard to just go out in the general market and hire those skills, get them trained, and then keep them. You know that’s the other challenge, is once you have somebody trained how do I keep them? So I just think this outsourcing is going to be a viable alternative for, as I mentioned, not just smaller organizations, but larger organizations, as well, when they need some capacity relief at times.
Hannah Nyren: Right. That’s very true. Were there any other big surprises?
Gary Whitney: Well, I guess some of the other things, one of them we asked an open ended question to say, “What other trends are you seeing out there?” And a couple that shouldn’t have been surprises us that we hadn’t discussed internally beforehand. One was artificial intelligence is clearly becoming mainstream and it got brought up in a couple of different dimensions. One, just that we’re going to have a number of discoveries that are going to be assisted by artificial intelligence playing a role in helping the researchers do their research. And this is kind of an interesting concept that you might have this little assistant that’s helping you figure out what you should even be researching, or helping you discover what makes sense from the data that you’re looking at. And then I think AI will help our research administration clients be able to make sense of some of the data that they have as well. For example, you might have an AI assistant that’s looking at some of your compliance data and go “Hmm, there might be a potential conflict between the research that this researcher is doing and these payments that we’re seeing over here by pharma to individuals.” So they might be able to actually help tie together things and anticipate issues before they actually happen which is a very cool result.
Hannah Nyren: So do you think your research administration clients are afraid of being replaced by AI? What are their current feelings toward the machines that could possibly do part of their jobs?
Gary Whitney: I don’t think that that’s so much of an issue. And this may be my bias, but as I look at it, a lot of these things just aren’t able to be caught today. And this gets a little bit into the whole Big Data trend too, which was one of the things we asked about. There’s so much information flying around right now that people are having a hard time individually trying to make sense out of some of these things. And if you have little AI assistants that could be helping you monitor some of those things, I think it would help, individuals be more successful, more productive in doing that. And we’ve always said, ultimately, if you can get them to do some of these routine things, then it allows people to bubble up a layer and be able to think more broadly and do bigger oriented kinds of tasks. So right now I’d say, it’s perceived to be a help more than a threat.
Hannah Nyren: So what trend did people generally think was least likely to occur?
Gary Whitney: On the bottom end of the spectrum, was this research burden trend. And there’s been studies that have been done across the industry. And I think the last two polls showed that, roughly, if you’re a researcher, 42 percent of your time is spent doing administrative functions, not actually doing the science and the research. And so one of the trends we put out there was “Do you believe in the next five to 10 years that we can earn back 25 percent of a researcher’s life by, you know, automating things and removing a lot of that burden?” And clearly, that one showed up that people didn’t believe that that much progress was going to be made in that period of time, and so that got voted the least likely to happen. And people were pretty confident that that wasn’t going to happen in that time frame.
Hannah Nyren: Have you seen any data that supports that up to 25 percent of these research functions could be replaced by technology or can be aided in technology so they can focus more on research?
Gary Whitney: I think it needs to be a combination of both automation as well as, kind of, business process change. And I’ll give you an example of Arizona State.
Gary Whitney: Their whole focus is that. What do we do to make it easier for the researcher? And they’ve done some pretty phenomenal things in terms of reducing the amount of time it takes to get an agreement put in place, and the amount of time it takes to get a grant submitted. Those types of things. But they have to combine that with a just amazing process methodology. So, they look at everything. Tamara Deuser, their vice president, has this model of red rules and blue rules. And I’m not sure where she came up with that. I think there is a paper that was written about that, but it’s a way to think about things that said, you know, “Red rules are the rules that are really government rules that we have to follow and things we need to do. Blue rules are the rules that we came up with as an organization. Somebody decided this was a good thing to do 10 years ago, and we keep doing it, and we’ve never asked ourselves, ‘Is it really smart for us to keep doing that?’ So they have a process approach which just causes them to challenge everything they’re doing and try and streamline that. And so I think if anybody could could make a 25 percent dent in that, it’ll be somebody like Arizona State that’s combining technology with process improvement and just has a tremendous focus to make that happen.
Gary Whitney: They approach things more from a business perspective. They empower their people to blow up processes and try and rebuild them. They’re willing to take more risk than other organizations are and I think that starts from Michael Crow on down, they just have that built into their DNA and that allows them to do some pretty interesting things that more traditional institutions wouldn’t have the risk profile that would allow them to do that.
Hannah Nyren: What other research organizations do you think are moving the fastest to adapt to these trends discussed in the survey?
Gary Whitney: I think M.D. Anderson is doing things right now on a scale that is beyond what most other organizations can do. I mean anybody that has their primary mission is to go cure cancer, that’s a pretty big idea. And they’re backing it up with systems and processes and infrastructure to allow their researchers to really go after that. And clearly when you think about doing cancer research, and you’ve got all the biorepository things, and you’re combining that now with genomics data, you’re ending up with huge data sets. And somehow, you need to store that and make sense of that. And, you know, the cloud becomes a piece of that equation as well.
Gary Whitney: To me, it’s exciting, what technology is doing now to enable some things that we never would have thought of, you know, even trying to be able to do before. I’m impressed with them and the resources they’ve been able to marshal across the industry. You know, clearly they’re big from the standpoint of funding from the I.H. and others. But they’ve got a huge amount of industry money behind them, as well as a donor base that’s phenomenal. And so they are bringing some just scale that I haven’t seen from other places attacking a problem like that. And it’s fun to watch.
Gary Whitney: One of the little things that was very special to me, is on the plane flight on the way out to the conference, I sat next to a woman and the stewardess was talking with her and she was talking about she had to go out to M.D. Anderson for another cancer visit. And the stewardess got all emotional and was like “Oh I’m so sorry.” And the woman said “Oh, well they’ve been keeping me alive for 15 years. Don’t worry about this. This is just my standard checkup.” It’s just kind of a neat story that they made a fundamental difference in a lot of people’s lives. And, you know, that’s why it’s fun to be doing what I’m doing now trying to help these organizations in some small part be successful at doing that.
Gary Whitney: The United States still is the leader in research, you know, across the board. And I hope that we can continue to be so into the future.
Hannah Nyren: And so are you going to conduct another survey? Are you going to continue to keep track of all of these trends?
Gary Whitney: This is something we definitely want to consider and push going forward. So we have plans right now. I just wrote up a summary of the results from the first survey. We’re going to push that out through a blog post. We’re going to get a webinar scheduled for sometime this summer, where we could hopefully get four to five hundred people online at the same time and ask a refining set of questions for these trends, to try and keep focusing in a little bit more. And just broaden the set of knowledge out there by asking some polling questions. And so we definitely want to keep this going forward, and make this kind of a standard process for all of our user groups. I think it’s a healthy exercise for people to do.
Hannah Nyren: And you have the advantage of having so many people to choose from.
Gary Whitney: Exactly. And as you were pointing out, if we can spot trends in the trends, so if we do a baseline now and we do another baseline in six months then we can start seeing, are people actually moving in that direction? Not just whether or not they think this is going to happen, but are they actually making substantial progress on any of these? That’ll be exciting in and of itself.
Hannah Nyren: Right, it will be interesting to measure their expectations versus the reality a few years later.
Gary Whitney: And then five years from now, you and I will look back at this and we’ll all laugh, because there’ll two or three things that we thought were going to be big and never happened, and there’ll be two or three things we never even saw coming. And they’ll be the biggest things ever.
Hannah Nyren: Right. So in general aside from, you know, the trends that are going forward and the expectations of the future what are the biggest challenges right now for research institutions? Not only from what the higher ed leaders have indicated at this user group meeting, but also just in your daily interactions with higher ed institutions and with research institutions.
Gary Whitney: Great question. I think one of the biggest challenges, if you asked each of the participants, would be clearly, funding. You mentioned that a little bit before. There’s always more appetite to do things than what, can get that in any given period of time. And as we look at people at different institutions, you have to find somebody who’s going to be a champion, a change agent, somebody to push a cause. But I think if you can get that going there are opportunities to make that happen today. The environment’s gotten a little bit harder. The federal government isn’t as likely to be funding things as they were in the past. That was another trend that we that we focused on. So you have to find other ways to get this done. And those might be some of those partnerships we talked about with industry. Those might be finding a donor that’s willing to fund a particular segment of research, those types of things. So it’s just being able to get your projects started and make something happen. I think if you ask most of our clients, that would be the biggest challenge that they would view today in terms of them making substantial progress.
Hannah Nyren: Right. And I think government funding has been a big concern across higher ed. And if you really think about the implications of that, unless you find a way to do things more efficiently, or to find different streams of revenue this valuable research, around cancer, around, you know, space that won’t be able to continue unless there are new sources of funding found.
Gary Whitney: Right. Or as you point out, if we can get more efficient in doing this, then everybody wins. And so I have had two or three conversations since the conference about, you know, people trying to partner together and create, you know, big data sets in the cloud that that multiple people can analyze. That not everybody has to have their own, you know, data. You could actually leverage more across the industry on some of these activities. So I think there’s creative ways to think about that, to overcome some of the funding challenges.
Gary Whitney: The other area that people are a little nervous about is, you know, in the current climate that we’re in as well, we’re not making all of our decisions necessarily based on the best science that’s out there today. So people are a little nervous given the current environment. You know, what what does that mean? From a standpoint of continuing to get funding and the results being respected you know across the industry. Or the population in general buying into the results of some of this science that- that’s out there. That will be another challenge we’ll have to address.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, I can imagine, putting the work in the years since the research is enough. But actually getting people to believe in and apply it is a whole different story.
Gary Whitney: That’s right. You can lead a horse to water but, you know, can you make them drink the results?
Hannah Nyren: That’s really interesting. And make you so much for your perspective today. It’s been great to speak with you.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
Huron is a global professional services firm with an extensive history in higher education. For nearly two decades, Huron has provided consulting services for over 500 educational institutions, including all 100 of the top research universities in the United States.
You can learn more about what Huron does by visiting huronconsultinggroup.com.
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