Academy advisory report on tracking the impact of research

Consider networks and users when assessing impact of research

5 November 2018

When appraising the societal impact of scientific research in advance, it is important to consider the interactive networks and potential users. That is one of the three recommendations made in the report Maatschappelijke Impact in kaart [Tracking societal impact], published today by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The point is not to chart the impact itself, in other words, but the factors and processes that increase the potential for societal impact.

The report is a response to a request by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science asking the Academy to advise on how best to track the societal and economic impact of research. A committee headed by Richard van de Sanden (DIFFER and Eindhoven University of Technology) looked at how other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, have assessed societal impact and the lessons that they have learned.  The committee also organised a meeting for more than a hundred guests from the worlds of science, policymaking, research funding and management, as well as potential knowledge users, such as businesses, associations of patients, cultural institutions and environmental organisations. 

The report offers three recommendations or lines of development. The first is that when estimating the effect of scientific research in advance, it is important to consider the networks and users, and not the anticipated impact itself. The second is to make better use at a later stage of the information gathered by research institutes and institutions of higher education. The third recommendation is to learn more from earlier experiences so as to increase the impact of future projects. 

The committee specifically advises the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to continue requiring researchers to think about the potential impact of their research. In addition, it recommends that the Science Ministry have a report drawn up at regular intervals reviewing how research in the Netherlands impacts society. The committee also advises the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Academy, NWO, the federation of applied research institutes (TO2) and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences to consider whether the descriptions of research impact (narratives) drafted within the context of research evaluations can be made more accessible to a broader public. Finally, the committee recommends that research institutes and institutions of higher education assess their researchers more often and more specifically on their societal impact.

Warning

The committee is concerned that the interest in societal impact will lead to a decline in support for some types of research. In addition, the impact of research often only becomes visible after more than ten years. It is furthermore often impossible to link the relevance of research directly to a specific research project. Measuring impact also takes time and money and that requires a large enough budget.