From Measuring Research Impact to Maximising It

The way in which science and the rest of society interact with each other significantly moulds which direction our society progresses in. Once research funding better understands the non-linear nature of the social impact of research, this interaction can be greatly improved.

In order for us to solve the challenges threatening humanity’s existence, it is important to increase the impact of research elsewhere than simply within the scientific community. Obviously, the research project’s number of Twitter followers or guest articles written by the researcher cannot measure impact. However, precisely these things are reported because they are easy to measure.

The social impact of research often arises from the complex interaction between the scientific community and actors within the rest of society. However, it is not uncommon for the conversation to become stuck on the need to increase researchers’ capabilities in communication, interaction and co-development. In actual fact, it is not just researchers who need to change their way of working: better support services and incentives are needed from research institutions in order to increase interaction. More expert work and more knowledgeable doers are needed on the interface between science and decision-making. This also means that there needs to be more systematic use of scientific information in decision-making.

In addition to these, research funding is in need of new thinking about how impact is monitored, demonstrated and evaluated. During this decade, the discussion on the social impact of research has advanced from developing impact indicators to more qualitative methods. Now, we are talking about pathways to impact and impact stories. This is the right direction to be headed in. Where will the conversation move on to in the future?

Current structures encourage applicants to resort to “safe bets”

The subject is made even more topical by the recently published EU Commission’s proposal for the new European Union research and innovation programme. The “Horizon Europe” programme’s content and the much-talked-about missions will become clearer as the preparatory work continues. One thing is certain, however: the demands for social impact will not be reduced in the upcoming funding period. In its statement, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) proposes that Horizon funding should move away from evaluating the expected social impact at the application stage, and focus instead on evaluating the actual impact. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that impact is something that is almost impossible to demonstrate at the research project level. At the level of a single research project, chiefly the short-term and most likely outputs and outcomes can be monitored. Demonstrating major social changes is possible only at a programme level, and often only years after the programme has ended.

Currently, evaluating the social impact of projects at the application stage causes great temptation for the applicants, who are operating under financial pressure, to overemphasise the expected impact of the project. On the other hand, evaluating impact during the project and immediately afterwards makes funding recipients cautious: it is worth pursuing only the kind of impact that you truly believe is achievable and demonstrable.

In reality, the social impact of research is a complicated, multifaceted, non-linear and often very slow process in which the role of a single research project is limited and difficult to predict. According to LERU, the success of research projects should not be evaluated according to whether they have achieved their social impact goals. A research project’s social impact goal, such as influencing decision-making through a change in legislation, requires the involvement and cooperation of several other players. In addition to this, you need luck, the right timing and many other things that the research project alone cannot influence.

It is likely that interaction between research and the rest of society will improve once we begin to monitor actual impact. The current structures of research funding such as Horizon funding encourage applicants to resort to ”safe bets” in terms of impact, for which it is easy to develop indicators and which can be verified.

In truth, research funding should encourage larger effects in terms of expected value, even if their actualisation is uncertain or the significance of a single research project with regard to larger change is hard to demonstrate. The need to find solutions to the world’s major problems speaks in favour of such an approach.

Do you want to discuss more about interaction between research projects and creating impact through research? Contact Kirsi-Marja Lonkila. Also follow her on Twitter: @kmlonkila

  1. A big thanks to Joonas Ottman for laying the groundwork for the text.