My Summer at the “University without Students”

By William D. Goldsmith
Ph.D. Candidate in History


GoldsmithMy summer at RTI International as a Versatile Humanists at Duke Intern was a rewarding experience that confirmed a hunch: Academics and policymakers mutually benefit from collaborative efforts to address our world’s biggest challenges.

RTI International, with more than 5,000 staff members scattered across the globe, is one of the Triangle’s biggest employers of Ph.D.s. Elements of RTI’s work align with consulting, but as a nonprofit, its mission is to improve the human condition rather than shareholder’s financial statements. Fundamentally, RTI engages in translational research—figuring out how to apply basic scientific research to improve health and well-being in the real world. RTI was the cornerstone tenant when North Carolina government, business, and academic leaders created the Research Triangle Park in the late 1950s.

While working at RTI, I sometimes heard it called a “university without students.” Like a university, the organization powers a variety of research endeavors in, among other things, environmental science, pharmaceutical research, international development, and workforce policy. These research efforts draw on the expertise of engineers, doctors, scientists, economists, and planners.

In many respects, the content of my hours at RTI was little different than it is as a Ph.D. candidate researching and writing dissertation chapters, conference papers, and academic articles. My core task was to write a research paper that helped define “inclusive innovation.” The paper, “Finding the Elusive ‘Inclusive’ in Innovation-Led Economic Growth Theory and Practice,” described competing (and overlapping) definitions of inclusive innovation and examined strategies that development-minded organizations have used to promote inclusive innovation.

Much of my time went to reading books and articles, categorizing and synthesizing an unfamiliar literature in much the way I have been trained to do in graduate school. I came into the internship with a solid foundation in the intellectual history of development, but I had only a passing familiarity with innovation policy, so this was my first deep dive into the literature.

As I wrote my research paper, I reported to Jeffrey Alexander, an economist and lead strategist of RTI’s innovation-led economic growth team. Dr. Alexander has deep knowledge of innovation policy, especially its theory and the economic statistics that organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have used to measure innovation. His base office is in Maryland, but Jeff came down to North Carolina a few times. He connected me to other RTI staff members scattered across the org chart, and I was able to interview about a half dozen of them for the paper. Talking to those people gave me a better sense of the breadth of RTI’s operations.

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In my dissertation research, I document the policy contributions of academics across the last five decades—scholars who offered their expertise to help guide state policy or formulate projects at nonprofits. RTI showed me an example of how that engagement continues today.

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RTI runs an extensive internship program that also helped me learn more about the organization. Though I was an unusual case—coming out of a history Ph.D. program and on the older side of the intern cohort—that infrastructure provided greater opportunities for networking and learning about the organization. During the Annual RTI Internship Showcase, I was able to present a three-minute “lightning” talk about my research paper to an audience of 100 or more RTI employees and invited guests.

Mostly, I was surrounded by economists and urban planners. Hanging out with economists is not necessarily a bad thing. I learned about survey methods, heard of difficulties finding meaning in large data sets, and got a better sense of total factor productivity.

Meanwhile, much of my time was spent rediscovering the wheel of innovation policy. Less of that work went into the paper than I had originally envisioned, but my summer at RTI will inform my dissertation, especially my final chapters, which tackle North Carolina economic development policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, the experience has given me fresh eyes to understand my archival material in the context of a broader international effort to map and enhance “national systems of innovation.” I got an inside look at one of the largest local employers of Ph.D.s, and I may get a publication out of it.

My time at RTI underscored the difficulties of taking academic research and turning it into working policy. This is a challenging time for this kind of endeavor, given the weakened trust in the expertise of scientists of all stripes. Moreover, RTI’s revenue is somewhat dependent on government contracts, so the many turns in Washington (and elsewhere) are no sideshow for the organization. Beyond that, it is sobering to think that the work we produce might influence the policy decisions of a development organization or a government. Certainly it raises the ethical stakes of engaged scholarship.

But being at RTI did affirm the benefits of cross-pollination between academics and policy. In my dissertation research, I document the policy contributions of academics across the last five decades—scholars who offered their expertise to help guide state policy or formulate projects at nonprofits. RTI showed me an example of how that engagement continues today. The organization’s work, whether on local workforce development or national innovation ecosystems, underscored the demand among government leaders, NGO operators, and civic-minded businesspeople to bolster their economies, uplift the worst off among them, and—to borrow from RTI’s mission statement—improve the human condition. I am appreciative of the taste of translational research that RTI provided this summer.