Towards societal impact: What support do researchers need in maximizing their societal impact?

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By: Guest contributor, Tue Sep 1 2020

Author: Guest contributor

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This is the final blog in a series (read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) exploring researcher feedback on societal impact. It combines results from a survey with more than 9,000 researchers exploring societal relevance (or reach beyond academia), and also results from a research project in the Netherlands to determine what support is available to researchers from its institutions. This work forms part of a project Springer Nature is undertaking with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU).

Written by Mithu Lucraft, Director, Outreach and Open Research 

In previous posts in this series, we looked at what motivates researchers when it comes to societal impact, or in other words their reach beyond academia. We also looked at the methods researchers employ to achieve societal impact, and also how they measure societal impact. In this last blog, we explore what support researchers feel they need in maximizing their societal impact, looking both at the results from our 2019 survey with global researchers, and then more closely at a report on support for researchers in the Netherlands. Our goal with this work is to help define best practices in a practical toolkit for researchers to maximize their societal relevance. 

Is there support available for researchers to increase their societal impact? 

In our survey, nearly a quarter of respondents said that they received no support for increasing the societal impact of their research. Those that did receive support indicated that this came from part of their institution (43%) or from colleagues (42%). For those receiving support from their institutions this primarily came from the research office or the communications department. Around a third reported that they were supported by their library. Far fewer respondents said they got support from publishers (18%) or professional agencies, consultancies or services (14%). 

Globally, an average of 23% said they received no support at all for societal impact. This was highest in Europe with an average of 28% saying they received no support, however this was notably lower in the Netherlands, where only 19% said they received no support. When we look at the wider feedback from our survey, it’s clear that researchers would value more help, with time and lack of knowledge key barriers.

What types of support do researchers receive?

For respondents who said they received support, the two most common types of support were: 

  • Financial: either grant money or separate funds that could be used to attend conferences or promote the research in some other way
  • Press releases, media coverage or other promotion: a wide variety of types of support provided by another party outside the research team, either inside or outside the institution

Approximately a third of responses did not specify what type of support they received or the response was unclear.

A closer look at the support mechanisms for researchers in the Netherlands

As our project exploring societal impact is being run in partnership with the association of universities in the Netherlands, we decided to take a closer look at Dutch impact support mechanisms. Stefan de Jong is a Dutch researcher who has studied societal impact and evaluation of academic research. We asked Stefan to undertake a desk research project to determine what impact support was available across the 14 member universities of the VSNU. Using our survey as a guide to determine the types of support a researcher might be receiving, Stefan searched each of the universities’ websites, looking for pages on impact, as well as units that could lead to more information on impact support (such as Knowledge Transfer Offices libraries and research support offices). The findings of this work have now been published as an interactive webpage, with the opportunity for institutions to further update the site with missing information.

Most support is information on impact and access to expertise 

In total Stefan found more than 139 unique pages on a variety of support mechanisms, some of which were shared across institutions. A small number of pages were only accessible within the institution under a password. The levels of support varied across institutions, with between 1 and 23 support mechanisms per university. The most frequently offered support was informational, followed by access to expertise within the university, or competence development. There was least available support that related to tools, recognition and physical spaces.

What support is there for targeting specific groups?

In our survey we found that outside of reaching other researchers, there was most variance by target audience based on research discipline. For the Dutch universities, most of the support mechanisms were relevant across multiple audiences, but there were a number of mechanisms specifically addressing companies and a general audience. There was least support specifically targeted towards professionals, media and schools. 

What activities does support cover?

Again, when considering the activities that the universities support, our survey found most variance here again by discipline. Across the Dutch universities, most mechanisms support multiple activities, public engagement and commercialization There was least support for post-graduate education.

The majority of these support mechanisms are offered across a number of universities. Tools, in some cases provided by a third party, and open access support, are mostly offered through university libraries or university publishers.

Looking at these results, in combination with our global survey, it’s clear that Dutch universities offer a wide variety of impact support mechanisms. Most support still seems to focus on traditional modes of impact, such as collaboration with companies, commercializing research and entrepreneurship, and there may be room for additional tools, physical spaces for collaboration, and support mechanisms that address non-commercial impact. 

What happens now?

Looking at what we have learned from our survey and this desk research, we can begin to better understand what support researchers are looking for and their priorities around societal relevance. In the Autumn, we are working together with Stefan de Jong, VSNU and individual institutions in the Netherlands to undertake a series of virtual workshops and interviews. Combining these outputs, we hope to release a best practice toolkit on maximizing societal impact. If you are a researcher in the Netherlands and wish to take part in these workshops, contact Mithu Lucraft for further information.

Click here to read more about the project and find further slides and raw data from the survey.

At the heart of this agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Supporting researchers to achieve that reach is therefore a key part of Springer Nature’s SDG Programme, aiming to connect researchers who are tackling some of these global grand challenges with the practitioners who can build on these insights. 

Mithu Lucraft
About Mithu Lucraft

Mithu Lucraft has worked in academic publishing since 2004. A passion for storytelling combined with a lasting commitment to scholarly communications has led her through a variety of Marketing and Communications roles, including at Oxford University Press, Sage Publishing and Palgrave Macmillan. At Springer Nature she is responsible for promoting open books and research data services; institutional engagement with open research; as well as wider researcher content engagement strategy.


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