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Web tools aim to open the gates to the ivory tower

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

A new search engine designed by Memorial University is aiming to make it easier for Joe Public to tap the know-how of the ivory tower.

Called Yaffle , after the Newfoundland term for an armload of fish or sticks, it offers an armload of knowledge. Think of it as an online dating service for the academic set, matching research needs with expertise.

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As governments pour millions into research, universities are under increasing pressure to make their findings available to the folks who are footing the bill and to unleash their academic smarts on problems in the community. Such demand for knowledge-sharing is spawning new efforts to decipher academic material and place it in the hands of people who can put it to work.

"Our sole purpose in life is to make connections," said Memorial's David Yetman, who got the Yaffle project up and running earlier this year. "A lot of people are saying we give you all this money, what are you really doing that benefits our society?" The new website allows anyone to search for the university's latest findings on a given topic and to post a call for research help. So far, the site has fostered an oral history project, led foreign graduate students to Memorial and prompted several inquiries from governments and industry for joint projects.

"If you think about it on a world level, Yaffle has just amazing potential," Mr. Yetman says. "Imagine 5,000 universities using Yaffle and when you do a search on Arctic sovereignty you get 10,000 hits."

Not all knowledge-sharing efforts have such large horizons. Toronto's York University has tapped poet Jason Guriel to decode the sometimes dense writing of academic work and create plain language summaries, also available online.

"It's a strange role for a poet," says Mr. Guriel, a graduate student at York who was placed in his post as a research assistant. "At first it was an experiment. Now it has really found its footing."

David Phipps, director of the York project, which is available on the university's research impacts website, says the two-page snapshots are designed as a kind of calling card to highlight research expertise. They are a way, he says, to let decision makers know who to go to for help in specific policy areas, much the same way as Yaffle works as a research matchmaker. "I don't see any reason why these two pieces couldn't work together," he says.

York's president Mamdouh Shoukri says academics have always shared their knowledge through scholarly journals and the classroom, but there is growing pressure to make sure research is not "kept on the shelf."

"We are not going to be competitive as a society unless our knowledge is put to use," he says. "We need to translate it in a way that the average person can use it."

Convincing faculty to look beyond the lecture hall and the library is not always straightforward. Academic success - and tenure - is based primarily on published research, not public works, making participation in such projects entirely voluntary.

"You can encourage professors to share their research, but there is no incentive for them to do that," says Memorial's Mr. Yetman. The Yaffle experiment, he says, has been helped by the strong mission at Memorial to contribute to the province.

Chemical engineering professor Kelly Hawboldt has become Memorial's Yaffle superstar, with her research attracting the most hits since the website launched in February, 35 contacts so far.

Prof. Hawboldt, who has expertise in the environmental impacts of offshore oil and gas and biofuels, says she has been contacted by companies in Boston and Ireland with offers of research projects. But what excites her most as a researcher, she says, is the foreign students who have found her through the site and are interested in studying with her. "It's helping to put us on the map," she says. "For somewhere like Memorial that is a little out of the way, that is especially important." After less than a year, Yaffle contains more than 1,000 research summaries and more than 100 community proposals and Mr. Yetman says a business plan is in the works to allow other universities to join.

"I say move over Google," he declares, only half joking. "Yaffle is the Google of university research."