Exploring societal impact: “We have to build bridges with society”

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Tue Nov 24 2020

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Author: Guest contributor

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 Hans Nelen, key domain chair in criminal law and criminology at the Faculty of Law, Maastricht University. He has conducted research and published extensively on a variety of criminological subjects, including police, drugs, corruption, fraud, organised crime, corporate and occupational crime. 

He spoke to us about the growing importance of societal impact, the need for balance with academic impact, and the pressures on early career researchers.

Can you tell us a bit about your own background and your research?

I was trained as a criminologist but I also have a law background, so I feel I'm building bridges in between law and social science. 

Between 1986 and the beginning of 2001 I worked as a senior researcher and research supervisor at the Research and Documentation Centre of the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands (WODC), mainly involved in drugs, fraud, organised crime, corporate crime and police research. Then I moved to the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, before becoming a professor at Maastricht University in 2007. 

My research now is very much dependent on external funding and we’re heavily involved in all kinds of projects financed by, for instance, the European Commission, local ministries, local authorities – and of course, with the funding coming from those sources there’s already an expectation there that it should have a societal impact.

And how would you define societal impact of research?

Well, that really is the key question. And not just, how do you define it but how do you assess it? What is societal impact? I think it’s actually difficult to assess academic impact accurately, let alone societal. With academic impact, we tend to only look at things like publications in high impact factor journals, for example – but does that truly reflect academic impact? 

For societal impact, I think one of the key things you can look at in my field is how you’re working with external institutions. Not only in terms of getting the grants, but also in terms of how you work with them when you start new research projects. Your connections with societal institutions – with judges, courts, the public prosecution department, police, defence lawyers, ministries – are a reflection of the impact you’re likely to be able to have.

Do you think working in this way – with non-academic institutions involved more closely in the research – is quite a shift from how things have been done traditionally?

Certainly. Not just in terms of the start of projects, but also what we do with the results. In the past, I would say that generally once a project was completed, there was a report published and that was about it – we would already be moving on to a new project. 

In the past, we never really paid a lot of attention to explaining to people what to do with the conclusions of our research – which in my area, often do have an impact for society at large. For instance, findings can often be relevant for the police – but realistically, police officers aren’t going to read an academic paper. 

Now, I think we’re starting to employ a whole variety of new strategies to communicate about the research findings. Whether that’s face-to-face, in the media, creating short films. There’s certainly been a real shift. 

Essentially, I think we’re now looking at how we can add value to the research we’ve done by making it more relevant to society at large – both in terms of what research we carry out and how we communicate about it at the end of a project. We’re no longer in an ivory tower, we don’t want that anymore. We have to build bridges with society.

How have you gone about communicating your work to a wider audience – do you have any interesting examples you could share?

In terms of communicating with the wider public, I have an advantage because of my area of expertise – crime sells. People are interested in all kinds of crime-related issues, so criminologists are quite popular with the media. I’m often approached by journalists for comments and input. 

But, of course, sometimes the audience where I can have the most impact is more specific – for example, police officers investigating corruption cases, prosecutors, judges, municipalities, mayors. In those instances, I’ve found face-to-face interactions are often the most effective.

With police officers, for example, I might do a very short presentation. But the majority of the time I spend with them would be focused on getting them to start discussing interesting dilemmas they’re facing which are related to the research. Coming up with cases that I’ve seen, for example, which will trigger some discussion with them. 

With communicating one piece of research – which was around how interview suspects and witnesses could be manipulated – we actually used role-play to get the message across. We put people in a scenario and showed how we could manipulate them, which immediately helped them to understand the findings.

I’ve learnt over time that doing this with different audiences is important, because otherwise what you’ll see is your research being taken out of context or not properly interpreted – for example, by politicians. We can’t 100% prevent that from happening, but if you go out to politicians and policymakers and explain the main message that came out of your research it can help to avoid those situations.

You’ve mentioned the importance of funding – do you think that funding priorities have driven the shift in focus towards societal impact?

In part, that certainly seems the case. I'm very much in favour of the shift, but at the same time, I'm worried about it. There’s been a real shift in how universities are funded in general – research used to be financed by the university itself, whereas now there’s much more external funding. And while this can be a good thing, in terms of societal impact, I think there are potential dangers with it.

For example, the risk is that if you’re reliant on external organisations to fund research, those external organisations could have too much influence over the research questions being asked and also the results. There are concerns about how independent the research is. If you’re a good researcher, you should know how to deal with these potential issues, but I do think it could create a risky dynamic. 

In addition, when it comes to tying funding to societal impact, I think there needs to be a balance. I've been in assessment committees, as well as an applicant, so I’ve seen both sides of how it works. If I look at how candidates for grants are generally assessed nowadays, it's usually about 40% on the quality of the applicant, 40% the academic quality of the proposal and 20% on societal relevance. I personally think this balance is about right.

Do you think it’s a challenge for early career researchers to balance building their academic profiles against dedicating time to societal impact work?

It’s a delicate balance, for sure. On the one hand, we have to demonstrate good quality academic research – this is what universities are for. And we want to encourage our young academics to push the limits. 

But at the same time, we want them to realise that there are indeed other aspects which are relevant for their work as well. And that’s not just in terms of balancing research and societal impact work – they also have to try to find a balance between teaching and doing research. What we see, especially with young academics, is that they have to do so much teaching that there's hardly any time left for doing research, for instance.

What I feel we need to do better is recognise the strengths of individual researchers and try to support them in the areas they are best at. For example, suppose that someone is very good at teaching, but hasn't published as much as others in terms of research – should that mean they can’t progress? One of the things you could argue is that we need to find specific opportunities for young academics who show great skill in areas other than research – teaching, communicating about research, and so on.

I would say even 10 years ago that idea was hardly imaginable because if you were not successful in doing research you were out. But now, I think we’re having to reconsider.

It's up to us, the older generation, to protect early career researchers. At the moment, it seems we expect each one of them to do everything and then what we’re seeing is that some of them – at a relatively young age – are experiencing burn out. When I compare the situation when I was an associate professor in the 1990s and the beginning of this century, compared to what is being expected from young academics now, it's hard to compare. It's much tougher. 

Learn more about how Springer Nature and VSNU are supporting researchers working to increase their societal impact 

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About Hans Nelen

Hans Nelen is Professor of Criminology at the Faculty of Law of Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Between 1986 and the beginning of 2001, Nelen was employed as a senior researcher and research supervisor at the Research and Documentation Centre of the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands (WODC). 

Between 2001 and 2006, he was a senior lecturer/associate professor and senior researcher at the Institute of Criminology of the VU University Amsterdam. Since January 1 2007 Nelen has been working as a Professor of Criminology at Maastricht University (UM). He is also Chair of the Centre for Information and Research on Organized Crime (CIROC).Nelen has conducted research and published extensively on a variety of criminological subjects, including drugs, corruption, fraud, organized crime and corporate crime. His recent publications focus on sports and crime and on innovative strategies to prevent and contain serious forms of crime.


Author: Guest contributor

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