Report on Public Interest Technology Funding and Institutional Challenges

Boston University and New America Release Report on Growth of Public Interest Technology Initiatives at Members of Public Interest Technology University Network

The still nascent field of public interest technology is growing at a rapid clip in higher education. Institutions need to build on the momentum while addressing challenges in funding, talent diversity and interdisciplinary collaboration, according to a new report with universities and colleges that make up the Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN).

Boston University, with the support of New America, today released its report, “Public Interest Technology University Network: Understanding the State of the Field”, which sheds light on the priorities of PIT-UN members, and opportunities for future growth. The report draws on both an in-depth member survey and a broad scan of related activities, academic programs and research initiatives underway at 43 academic institutions that made up the membership of PIT-UN as of the summer of 2021.  (The Network has since grown to 48 members.)

The field of public interest technology seeks to equip a new generation of students with the skills to critically assess the ethical, political, and societal implications of new technologies, and design technologies in service of the public good.

While the field is young, there is strong consensus among academic leaders that the main thrusts of public interest technology include: nurturing ethical fluency of technologists, community and user-engaged design processes, and using data and technology to improve lives. Data science is the primary technical foundation for most member institutions (88%), followed by Machine learning/AI (75%) and Cybersecurity (58%). Race and social justice (71%) and Ethics (67%) were identified as the key public interest foci, but only a handful of member institutions emphasized these two areas in the naming of related degrees, certificates or concentrations. Report author and co-Director of the BU Initiative on Cities, Katharine Lusk, said the lack of explicit emphasis on race and social justice, ethics and community engagement in the naming of academic credentials suggests an opportunity: “universities and colleges can help students signal these areas of expertise to employers, and make clear they possess far more than just technical competency.”

Member institutions have undertaken  a wide variety of initiatives to raise the profile of public interest technology across their community, with the creation of new courses (85%) topping the list. Half have either created a new PIT-oriented degree, or a related credential for students such as a certificate or minor. Yet members also identified several hurdles to growth, most notably around funding and capacity. Two-thirds of members (69%) cite the lack of funding as the primary impediment to growth, and slightly more than half (54%) see limited staff resources as a major obstacle.

The need to diversify funding sources also emerged as a challenge. Current members appear overly reliant on PIT-UN funding to support related efforts—it was the most frequently cited funding source, selected by nearly three-quarters of members. Fewer than half selected federal grants as a source of related support, even though almost 80%  of members are R1 or R2 institutions.

When it comes to education, members believe their institutions are adept at enabling curricular innovation but are less sanguine about efforts to expressly enable interdisciplinary teaching. While the merger of social and technical competencies is core to the maturation of public interest technology and is a key emphasis of PIT-UN, just 17% of members strongly agree their institution does a good job enabling interdisciplinary teaching. This challenge is not unique to public interest technology, as academic silos and administrative requirements often act as barriers to interdisciplinary learning and research.

“Public interest technology is a mainstay of the new interdisciplinary computing and data science programs we’re building at Boston University. This report highlights opportunities for universities like ours that are further along, and offers a roadmap and rich ideas for those that are just getting started,” said Boston University Associate Provost of Computing & Data Sciences, and report contributor, Azer Bestavros.

Diversifying the talent pipeline is another top priority for PIT-UN, but members gave their institutions relatively poor marks for attracting Underrepresented Minorities (URM), women, and nonbinary students to the field. Only 10% of members strongly agree that their institution does a good job attracting underrepresented students to STEM. While members reference a wide range of strategies to increase diversity in public interest technology initiatives, including experiential learning and faculty and student recruitment, only a third report directing significant financial aid to underrepresented groups pursuing related degrees.

Students play an instrumental role in promoting and advancing the field, including by leading student clubs and, in some instances, creating experiential learning programs for their peers. The report also notes more than 120 relevant experiential learning programs exist, across nearly every member of PIT-UN. Most emphasize real-world projects and partnerships with external clients, whether nonprofit, industry or government. Internship programs are also common, though members believe their institutions do a better job encouraging private- than public-sector careers.

“This report provides useful information on the opportunities and challenges for Network members to build on their programs,” said Andreen Soley, Director of the Public Interest Technology Program at New America. “The lessons they gleaned will help them to evaluate future investments in order to expand their public interest technology initiatives and reaffirm their commitment to center social justice and equity in their public interest technology programs.”

Boston University is continuing this project in 2022 with a course scan and content analysis across member institutions to identify additional themes and trends.

Read the Report

The Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS) at Boston University is a transdisciplinary, degree-granting academic unit that lives outside the typical organization of a university into schools, divisions, and departments. A tenure home for truly interdisciplinary faculty, CDS provides undergraduate and graduate students with the necessary agility to steer their education and training in a way that leverages their passion for discovery, innovation, and real-world impact. www.bu.edu/cds-faculty/

The Boston University Initiative on Cities (IOC) serves as a university-wide center that marshals the talents and resources of the social, natural, computational and health sciences across Boston University in pursuit of sustainable, just and inclusive urban transformation. The IOC leads research in, on and with cities, hosts critical conversations, and creates experiential, place-based learning opportunities for students. www.bu.edu/ioc

The Public Interest Technology University Network is a partnership of 48 colleges and universities convened by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation. The network and challenge grants are funded through the support of the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Mastercard Impact Fund, with support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, The Raikes Foundation, Schmidt Futures and The Siegel Family Endowment. PIT-UN is dedicated to building the field of public interest technology through curriculum development, faculty research opportunities, and experiential learning programs, in order to inspire a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy leaders. www.newamerica.org/pit/