As part of Springer Nature’s strategic partnership with The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), we’re interviewing researchers from a whole range of disciplines about their experiences of creating societal impact through research.
In this interview, we speak to Professor Philipp Pattberg, Director of the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute (ASI) – a platform for interdisciplinary research collaboration among all faculties at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He explains why he believes cross-disciplinary research and an open-minded approach to new opportunities are key elements in delivering societal impact through research.
The real world isn’t divided into siloed areas. It’s cross-disciplinary by nature. And I believe we need to look at research in the same way to have an impact in that world.
A good example is the current Covid-19 pandemic. There’s a lot of focus right now – and rightly so – on the development of a vaccine. But what we need to recognise is that the vaccine itself isn’t enough. To ensure any vaccine is successful you also need social scientists to tell you why people think they don't want to be vaccinated, you need people who study communities that know how to reach the people you’re wanting to vaccinate, and so on. There’s a whole range of disciplines involved and it makes no sense for them to work in silos.
My task, as director of the ASI, is to tell around 300 researchers at our university, who work on sustainability topics, that they should work together across disciplines. And that can be both incredibly interesting and sometimes quite frustrating. But I think to have the most impact we need to overcome those silos and boundaries that we have in the disciplines. We need to work in a way that reflects the world we live in.
This is a difficult one to answer because I think it's highly specific for the type of work you do and the type of questions you try to address. But if I were to try, in a nutshell, I would say it’s actually easier to say ‘non-academic impact’ – so it’s not about your publishing record, getting tenure, and so on. It’s about the impact your work has outside of that arena.
In terms of how you can say you’ve had an impact, I think there are a number of ways. It could be that your research can be put to practical applications, patents, proofs of concept – this is particularly true in a discipline like engineering, for example. Or you could have an impact by teaching people a method or approach you’ve developed.
Then you can also think about things like being part of a policy process. So if someone makes a law or a regulation and they ask you, as an expert, to contribute. And of course, you also generate impact by telling people about what you do in a straightforward way. Your aim might be to influence policymakers, but you talk to a lay audience or you talk to schoolchildren or to the media.
Everything that creates public attention to your work generates societal impact because it will alert people, it will educate people and it could then have a knock-on effect of influencing change.
Finally, I think you can also create an impact by making something – a company, an NGO, a society. For example, a colleague of mine set up a new professional society for a topic, creating a global network. That is societal impact too.
The SDGs provide a broad normative framework for our work, and we use them within the institute as a way to organise both our reporting and also our communications and outreach activities.
We give a primary SDG to each researcher so when you look them up in the system we use, you can see that against their profile. What I find very interesting is that this helps people to find others in different disciplines to work with. They can see someone’s work is related to the same SDG as theirs and so there’s an immediate link there – a spark for conversation.
For me, it’s less about creating incentives and more about removing barriers. Many funders do already request evidence of societal impact and I worry it could become another box-ticking exercise.
I would say that most scientists already have that motivation that they want to make a difference – in whatever way is right for their discipline. But it's more that they're then stuck in a system which has so many requirements – for example, to have those impact factor publications, to keep a consistent publishing record, and so on.
When you have requirements heaped on you, you have limited time to dedicate to considering how you’re going to have an impact outside academia. Early career researchers are super stressed because they’re being told they need to have an impact but they also have to meet all these other requirements. We’ve added another requirement, but without taking something else away.
I think openness and curiosity have been the two most important ingredients in being able to work with such a broad range of people – and in ways I’d never thought of until they approached me, certainly in the case of the artists.
Of course, to be on the radar for opportunities in the first place, personal networks are important. Building connections across academic disciplines and also outside the world of academia – so coming back to the idea of cross-disciplinary working again. You never know where opportunities are going to come from.
It’s an exhibition by Italian design duo Formafantasma, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin. It’s about the use of timber in design, including how it relates to global processes such as increased carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation. I'm an expert on the political regulation of some of these elements so the artists approached me and asked me to be part of it.
My input involved doing an interview which is part of the exhibition and I also prepared some imagined future agreements on forestry. It was a really interesting process – and unlike anything I’d done before.
I think doing something like that helps you to understand that there's a completely different way of influencing a totally different group of people. Most people who go to see this exhibition won’t know me – my work is far too technical. But through the artists, I suddenly had a new route to reach people and from that more opportunities have followed.
This all comes back to my point about being open to new opportunities – taking part in an art exhibition isn’t something I could have planned for, but it’s been a great experience and has allowed me to have an impact in a wholly unexpected way.
Philipp Pattberg acts as department head, Department of Environmental Policy Analysis, Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Faculty of Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam), where he guides a team of more than 30 researchers from diverse backgrounds to develop cutting edge research on pressing societal challenges. As full professor of transnational environmental governance and policy, Philipp specializes in the study of global environmental politics, with a focus on climate change governance, biodiversity, forest and ocean governance, transnational relations, public-private partnerships, network theory and institutional analysis. His current research analyzes options for institutional innovation to help accelerate the sustainability transition in times of increased institutional complexity, functional overlaps and fragmentation across environmental domains. Since 2018, Philipp is also Director of the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute (ASI), a platform for interdisciplinary research collaboration and societal impact among all faculties at VU Amsterdam.