Exploring societal impact: “We would like to award points for societal impact.”

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Thu Nov 26 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 Frank Cörvers, scientific director at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) and director of the Human Capital in the Region research programme at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA). 

He tells us about his work with policymakers, the challenges of measuring societal impact and how the SBE are trying to incorporate societal impact in their evaluation frameworks.

Societal impact has grown in importance in academia in recent years, but it’s always been a big part of your work. Can you tell us a bit about your research background?

I’ve always cared a lot about the societal impact of my research – which spans over 30 years now. That’s in part because I'm based at the ROA, which is an institute that does a lot of commissioned research – so we do specific research funded by policymakers and commissioners. The institute was founded when I was at the beginning of my career, so I'm used to working in that research tradition that starts with questions posed by policymakers and commissioners.

Of course, you don't just write down what they want to read. Conclusions are still based on scientific research and evidence. But the starting principle is looking at the questions that are going to be relevant to the stakeholders of the research. 

It’s satisfying building bridges between those two worlds – the world of research and the world of policy. I'm happy in that position, being a mediator between scientific research and policy recommendations.

What is your definition of societal impact in a research context?

For me personally, it has often entailed writing a report and then drawing conclusions that are relevant for the commissioners’ policies, as well as sometimes formulating recommendations for policies. 

But that is only one example. I think societal impact can entail a whole number of different things. For example, in our research area you could also provide policymakers with data sets and a framework for how to interpret the data. Or you could present your research for policymakers and have discussions with them about it. And even present your work in the media so that the results are known more widely – and, of course, this builds your own reputation too. 

In fact, there are any number of ways to have an impact in my area of research, I think. It could be taking part in committees or commissions, presenting at relevant conferences, publishing in specific policy journals – and so on.

You've built a reputation where people will come to you for your expertise in your area of research. How did you get started building that reputation?

A lot of it is network building – both with policymakers and with the media, with journalists. During the last 10 years or so, I think it's also more and more important to publish on social media – and I’ve seen many researchers using that as a great way to build their networks too.

Getting into the network at the start is usually the hard bit, but for me it was actually relatively easy because I worked at an institute that had a good reputation and was already in the network. So I had a good starting point from which to build my own connections.

Funders are now more focused on societal impact than in the past. Do you think that’s also changing the way researchers are approaching new research projects?

Yes, I think the European Commission launching the new Horizon 2020 programme and other similar initiatives which place a high emphasis on impact have changed things. 

Researchers are becoming more aware that they have to justify why they do what they do, I think. They have to think about what’s important for society, for policymakers, and how they can make interesting side products or develop services for policymakers and for society. 

In some fields it’s easier to see the societal relevance than in others – for example, medicine has a very clear and direct link. In my field of policymaking for economic policies, social policies, it's become about more than simply writing a report. That's not enough anymore. You really need to work closely with a range of stakeholders to make sure that the right questions are posed and that the results can be used directly in their work.

And you need to have those stakeholders on board right from the beginning, in a more intensive way, for example through joint projects and co-creation. That’s the only way to deliver products and services that are really helpful for them and for society.

In the Netherlands, it’s not just funders who are driving this shift towards societal impact. The Recognition and Rewards document published by the VSNU is of huge importance. Maastricht University’s Rector, Rianne Letschert, was one of the leading academics involved in publishing this document and she is also actively promoting the thoughts behind it in the Netherlands and around the world. 

Within Maastricht University we’ve established four working groups, including one on societal impact, to consider how to implement the recommendations from that work. At our School of Business and Economics we organized a fruitful meeting between Prof. Letschert and our community of academics to make them aware of the increasing relevance of societal impact in their research.

Do you think that, as a result of this shift towards impact, researchers are having to learn a whole new set of skills?

I think networking skills, social skills, and communication skills are certainly more important than before. And that could be a challenge, particularly for those researchers that are, for example, incredibly good at specialised quantitative research techniques – and that’s what they want to focus on. 

But this is where I think teamwork has also become more important than before. If you have a good mix of skills within your team, then it's not necessary for each researcher to have every one of those skills. An individual can bring his or her strengths to the team.

How do you incorporate societal impact into the work of students and researchers at the School for Business and Economics?

For starters, all PhD students are required to have an impact section included in their thesis – so they have to make the case that their research has societal relevance and also, if possible, they have to explain how they’ve already had an impact or would like to have impact as a researcher.

In addition, PhD students are given courses on a variety of impact-related skills, for example how to present yourself, how to deal with the press, and so on.

Something we’re conscious of though is trying to ensure there’s balance for researchers – we need to ensure we’re not adding requirements on top of requirements without taking anything away. For example, at our school we have a fellowship that you can acquire, but to do so you have to have enough publication points. But now, we’re having discussions about how to incorporate societal relevance. 

The question is – should this be something in addition to the academic requirements or could a researcher substitute some of those publication points with societal impact evidence? 

We would like to award points for societal impact. But that's a challenge, because there’s some resistance to this idea. Some researchers feel we shouldn’t merge those two kinds of research outputs in one fellowship, for example. That’s something we’re still deciding on at the moment.

You mentioned evidence of societal impact – do you have thoughts on what the evidence should be or how impact could be measured?

I’ve looked at frameworks for this, actually. Within our school, we have the so-called ‘REEAD’ framework, which stands for Research, Education, External funding, Academic citizenship and Dissemination. It's similar to frameworks I’ve seen from the European Commission.

For our fellowship, we’ve been discussing the idea that if you don't have enough publication points, you could perhaps compensate by showing your societal impact. The idea was that you would have to tick boxes if you think that you’re outstanding on specific criteria, such as being featured in the media or speaking at conferences. And then you’d have to provide evidence of that. 

I suspect that we will almost certainly broaden the assessment criteria for our fellowship in this way. With societal impact, I don’t think there’s any turning back.

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

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About Frank Cörvers

 Frank Cörvers combines his chair in Demographic Transition, human capital and employment at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) with the Human Capital in the Region research programme at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA). For this chair, he is affiliated to the Neimed socio-economic Knowledge Institute (a joint venture of the Open University, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences and Maastricht University). Furthermore he is member of the ROA management team and Scientific Director of the Graduate School of Business and Economics (GSBE) at Maastricht University. 

He is, among other positions, member of the scientific board of ITEM, fellow at MACIMIDE and member of the supervisory board of Zuyd University of Applied Sciences. He is also part-time professor in the Teacher Labour Market at the Tilburg Law School of Tilburg University. For this endowed chair, he is affiliated to CAOP institute in the Hague. He is, among other positions, member of the Scientific Expert Group on Population Decline (Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations), member of the Expert Group on Social Demography (Statistics Netherlands), member of the scientific board of ITEM (Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross border cooperation and Mobility at the Faculty of Law) and fellow at MACIMIDE (Maastricht Centre for Citizenship, Migration and Development at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences).

His research interests and recent publications address issues such as migration, brain drain, geographic and cross-border mobility, and regional labour market policies. He has published dozens of research reports for commissioners at ministries, provinces, the European Union, the OECD and the World Bank. He is frequently consulted as an expert on education and labour market issues by for example ministries, national councils and various news media. 

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