Societal impact and relevance of research

Each piece of research, irrespective of its discipline, needs to have relevance for the society at large
Societal impact and relevance of research
"By societal impact of research, we imply the evidence-based improvements experienced by individuals and societies as a result of the transference of findings, outcomes and benefits of good quality research." [Representational Image] Special arrangement

Universities are established with a primary mandate to create new knowledge through quality and cutting-edge research, and through such research make a tangible and sustainable impact on the society.

It is imperative for every piece of research irrespective of the field in which it is undertaken to have a significant societal impact in terms of some kind of scientific, social, cultural, economic, environmental, ecological, political, spiritual, technological, legal, behavioural, demographic, ethnic or humanistic implications on the society at large.

Research devoid of all of such implications can justifiably be rubbished as good for nothing research. By societal impact of research, we imply the evidence-based improvements experienced by individuals and societies as a result of the transference of findings, outcomes and benefits of good quality research.

Societal impact is denoted by the extent to which research contributes to and creates an understanding of the development of various social and economic sectors such as industry, academia, polity, governance, policymaking, healthcare etc.

It means the objectives that they aim to achieve and to resolve some of the most intriguing issues, problems and concerns of the society like climate change, food security, sustainable energy, diseased population, equity and social justice, social inclusion and cohesion.

Public funding in research is always made on the assumption that it would inevitably have a positive impact on areas such as our means of communication, modes of working, shelter, clothing and food, our methods of transportation and even the length and quality of our life itself.

As a result of drastic decline in the funding available for undertaking any kind of research, clubbed with a constant rise in the global demand for undertaking problem-based, goal-oriented, demand-driven, context-specific, translational, need-based, locally and socially relevant research, the necessity and demand for enhancing and measuring societal impact and relevance of every piece of research has grown shriller than ever.

Government and private funding agencies worldwide are seeking returns on their investments and laying huge emphasis these days on the societal outcomes of research and their applicability in resolving day-to-day problems being faced by the mankind.

So far researchers have been focussing only upon scientific or academic impact of the research in terms of number and quality of publications in scientific journals having high impact factor.

Since journal impact factors were basically designed to assess the quality of a journal by calculating the number of times the articles published in that journal were referenced or cited by others, measuring quality of research solely by the impact factor of the journal in which it is published is fraught with certain inherent flaws owing to the fact that impact factor can inform about the quality of journal but not always about the actual quality of research published.

Therefore, there is need to assess and ensure some kind of social impact of the research on ground because at the end of the day it is not the impact factor, h-index or the number of citations received on a publication that matter, what really matters is to what extent research has significantly impacted and brought a positive change in the human lives and transformed this world into a better place to live.

Research can be broadly classified into two major categories of fundamental and applied research, both of them being undertaken in academic institutions like universities and colleges whereas research and development on products and services is usually undertaken in the industries.

Research is so intricately interwoven with practice in some disciplines like law, medicine and engineering that any distinction between research quality and societal relevance would be deceptive and would be at loggerheads with accepted views on the quality of research in that field in light of the fact that research in such fields is almost always practice-based and demand-driven.

Similarly, research in other areas of applied sciences like computer sciences, information technology, bio-informatics, electronics etc., is deeply rooted in professional practice and strongly associated with an application context and therefore inevitably bearing a strong societal impact.

In such domains of knowledge, research questions are almost always drawn from practice and consequently the results will have to be directly applicable. However, in case of fundamental research where research is mostly carried out to unravel theories, principles, mechanisms and methods involved in basic sciences, social impact may not be visible soon enough.

It may sometimes become apparent after a gap of several years or even several decades when the pieces of a puzzle are joined together by a multitude of research projects in different parts of the world. Therefore, we need to assess the quality or impact of a research ‘in context’.

Since the context differs drastically from one area of research, discipline or organisation to another, indicators of societal impact and relevance may also differ.

While the evaluation of academic and scientific relevance of research is of paramount importance, and should not be compromised under any circumstances, there is need for more comprehensive evaluation methods that focus not only on scientific quality of research but also on its societal relevance. However, there are certain intrinsic problems confronted in the measurement of societal impact and relevance of research because of the paucity of robust and reliable indicators, tools and frameworks required for the same.

Since different stakeholders have different outlooks and expectations from research, it is practically impossible for two different measurements of the societal impact of a certain piece of research to match completely.

Unlike scientific impact measurement, there is a lack of well-documented, empirical frameworks with adequate data sets, criteria and methods for the evaluation of societal impact of research and that is the reason why in majority of studies, societal impact of research is more postulated than demonstrated (Niederkrotenthaler et al, 2011).

Evaluation of research relevance is quite a challenging job because it is difficult to attribute a certain impact to a specific single piece of work. At times a certain scientific outcome significantly matches with an effect observed in the society and is therefore attributed to it, whereas in actual practice, the relationship is not of a causal nature but caused by mere coincidence.

In order for the research to have some meaningful impact on the society, there has to be some quality interaction between a research group and its societal stakeholders. Such interaction can take place either when the research agenda is determined or during the research process itself, or even afterwards, when the results are communicated to the stakeholders. A productive interaction with stakeholders is vital for collecting information on a research group’s performance.

In many of the western universities, research shops, fairs and exhibitions are organised on regular basis to collect information and feedback from the communities on their issues, problems and concerns and subsequently evolve tangible solutions to them through problem-based research.

Modes of interaction with stakeholders may include personal contact, as in joint projects, networks, consortiums, consultancy relationships, part-time practitioner work; through publications such as papers in journals, reports, protocols and educational material; through artefacts, such as exhibitions, software, websites, models, musical scores; through stakeholder contributions to the research: financial, direct involvement, or by facility sharing (Spaapen et al, 2010).

Stakeholders can be involved in the evaluation of societal relevance of research, either in the self-assessment phase or by including stakeholders in the external evaluation committee. Societal relevance of research can also extend beyond its immediate importance for primary stakeholders to its secondary stakeholders in order to ascertain whether the research has a broader relevance that is not reflected by the primary stakeholders.

In conclusion every single piece of research necessarily needs to deliver some benefits to the society. Social benefits may indicate the contribution of the research to the social capital of a nation (e.g., stimulating new approaches to social issues, informed public debate, and improved policymaking).

On the other hand, cultural benefits are additions to the cultural capital of a nation (e.g., understanding how we relate to other societies and cultures, contributing to cultural preservation and enrichment) whereas ecological/environmental benefits add to the natural resource capital of a nation (e.g., reduced waste and pollution, uptake of recycling techniques).

Economic benefits denote contributions to the economic capital of a nation (e.g., enhancing the skills base, improved productivity) (Donovan, 2003;2011).

A consortium between five Finnish public research organizations involved in R&D activity has developed methods and indicators needed to analyse the socioeconomic impacts of research and has proposed five dimensions of impact with certain examples of indicators that include impact on economy, technology, and commercialization (e.g., patent applications, entry into new markets); impact on knowledge, expertise, human capital, and management (e.g., improved research methods, strengthened expertise); impact on networking and social capital (e.g., improved networking between research partners, firms, etc.); impact on decision making and public discourse (e.g., participation in legislative and strategy planning); and impact on social and physical environment (e.g., promotion of safety, development of infrastructure) (L-Smith et al., 2006).

There is need to study all such innovative methods, tools and frameworks available in literature and apply them in our local contexts for improving the societal impact and relevance of research, leading to what the scientists call ‘knowledge valorisation”, which means to make it beneficial and useful for the society.

Prof. Geer Mohammad Ishaq teaches at the Dept. of Pharmaceutical Sciences and is also Director, Centre for Career Planning and Counselling, University of Kashmir)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Greater Kashmir