Towards societal impact: Understanding attitudes and motivations for researchers

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Tue Aug 11 2020

Author: Guest contributor

VSNU Blogs header 1

In 2019, in partnership with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), we set out to investigate how researchers consider societal impact, looking at their activities and the factors that motivate them. The project forms part of a wider strategic initiative with VSNU to explore the role of open research in accelerating progress on global societal challenges. 

A survey was conducted in June 2019, with more than 9,000 active researchers responding from across a broad range of regions, career stages, subject fields and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of interest. This blog is the first in a series that will consider what we found, both looking at global trends but also at key highlights for researchers from the Netherlands. We look here at researcher attitudes: is societal impact important? What factors drive that? Who do researchers most want to address with their work? 

Written by Mithu Lucraft, Director, Outreach and Open Research 

Is societal impact important to researchers?

The good news is that societal impact is important to two thirds of global researchers (68%). However this is less important to them than being read by their peers. Academic impact — and being read by other researchers in the same subject area — is the number one motivation for researchers. Meanwhile, when asked about the type of intended impact from their research,  “academic impact” comes out as the most popular response. The majority of researchers are hoping to reach researchers in their subject area, with other target audiences varying by the discipline, intended impact and target audience of the respondent.

Figure 1_VSNU blog 1

Which researchers care most about societal impact?

There are some communities where societal impact is viewed as more important than the global average. Researchers responding from India are most likely to rate societal impact as “extremely” or “very” important (84%), followed by researchers in Central and South America (77%). Researchers responding from Japan, South Korea, Germany and France were the least likely to rate societal impact as important.

In the social sciences and medicine, researchers were  more inclined to rate societal impact as extremely important compared with other disciplines. These two disciplines were most likely to want to reach practitioners with their work (59% and 53% respectively). There was also a concentration of research that related to SDGs on good health and social equality from these disciplines. Physics, chemistry and engineering respondents were least likely to rate societal impact as important.

Figure 2_VSNU blog 1
Younger researchers are also more likely to feel societal impact is important, with a notable trend in the importance of societal impact declining the longer the time since a researcher’s first publication. Only 58% of researchers who first published before 1990 said societal impact was “extremely” important, compared with 73% of researchers who published in 2010 or later. It is unclear whether this is due to a generational effect, where researchers become less favourable towards societal impact as they age, or whether there is a younger generation entering academia whose stronger favourable attitudes towards societal impact will continue as they progress in their careers.

What drives this perceived importance?

When asked why they rated societal impact as more or less important, some researchers stated feeling obliged for their research to make an impact where that work is publicly funded. “My research was paid by tax money. It had the purpose to change societal perspectives on sustainability and the history of the concept”, said one Netherlands respondent.

The role of funders and institutional requirements was explored further in the survey, with nearly half (44%) globally saying their funder asks them “always” or “most of the time” to consider the social impact of their research when applying for a grant.  One open comment noted “Yes, there is much more focus on societal impact and many funders now are becoming more strict in their criteria when it comes to societal impact.” There was wide variation in results, however. For example, respondents in the Netherlands were most likely to be asked by funders to consider societal impact when applying for grants, with respondents from Germany more likely to never be asked to consider or report on societal impact. Fewer respondents were required to report on impact at the end of a grant by either funders or institutions.

The majority of researchers are also motivated by the potential outcomes for community and society from their work, for example one Netherlands researcher comments

“It is my mission to enhance quality of life of humans so my findings should be applied in life outside academia”. 

“Improve health” and “Improve quality of life” were the two most popular types of impact researchers selected after “Academic impact”. There is noticeable variation by discipline for intended type of impact. For example “To improve health” was selected by 81% of those carrying out medical research, and “Support sustainable development” was selected by 60% of those carrying out earth and environmental science.

Societal impact isn’t on every researchers' agenda

There is a clear segment of researchers for whom achieving societal impact is less important. When asked about types of intended impact they hoped their work would have, “academic impact - inform future research” scored highest (70%), and for a fifth of respondents was the only option they selected. In other words for this group of approximately 13% of respondents, they did not seek any impact beyond academia.

Key takeaways from part one

It’s evident that societal impact is relevant and important to the majority of researchers, with motivations, intended impact target audience linked with the discipline and relevant SDG for the researcher and their work.

In part two of this series we will further explore how the target audience and target impact drives choices a researcher makes in disseminating research. We will look at journal selection, communication channels, the time invested, and ways researchers evaluate their impact.

The project will use these findings to support development of a best practice toolkit for researchers, with the goal of helping researchers maximise their societal relevance. 

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.


Author: Guest contributor

Guest Contributors include Springer Nature staff and authors, industry experts, society partners, and many others. If you are interested in being a Guest Contributor, please contact us via email: