The online survey collects current patterns of opinions and attitudes about societal impact as a concept, including aspects that are consensual and those that are currently debated and contested. On top, the survey collects views on assessment frameworks and other strategies or initiatives aiming at strengthening societal impact.
Our approach is characterized by conceptual openness, as it acknowledges a broad range of possible opinions of the concept and variability. We did not provide our own definition on societal impact but raised different aspects that might be key for its understanding, leaving it up to the respondents to rate the relevance of respective aspects.
What is societal impact? How do respondents define it?
Useful research and transfer from science to society generally stand out as key aspects.
At the same time, societal impact proves to be highly associative. It revolves around broad concepts, such as transfer, usefulness, direct benefits, application, societal change, stakeholder integration, communication and traceability of effects, while none of them seems to be regarded as sufficient in defining societal impact. There is no clear, uncontested or even operational definition of societal impact.
“Societal impact is a label. Its meaning is interchangeable.”
What is the role of science in society?
Knowledge production as a primary purpose of science is not viewed in opposition to solving societal problems.
Societal relevance and the usefulness of research are considered integral parts of research by respondents from all sectors (and especially by science and academia). And a large majority thinks that research is already broadly involved in solving real-world problems. But societal impact can become a contested issue, when it comes to more instrumental questions. Here, opinions differ considerably.
“Science is to solve societal problems.”
What should be the focus of impact assessments?
The quality of research was rated as most relevant when assessing impact.
No other answer in this question received as many maximum approval rates. As a matter of fact, the quality of research was also rated higher than any of the impact-specific items, such as potential relevance and benefits of research. This may reveal the conviction that the primary criterion for impact is high quality research. Transmission processes and interactions with society were viewed as almost important as the quality of research.
“What should be the focus of impact assessments?”
How can we best advance societal impact?
Creating an impact-friendly research environment was regarded most suitable for advancing the societal impact of research.
This includes creating auxiliary conditions for researchers to pursue impact-oriented research while keeping away damages or disadvantages from them. Building awareness among researchers and the public, creating incentives, such as dedicated calls for proposals and unusual research formats, as well as involving societal stakeholders in the research process – all received high approval rates too. That “research assessments and regulations” are suitable for increasing the societal impact of research is far more contested among the respondents.
“How suitable are the following measures in advancing socital impact of research generally?”
Can societal impact agendas do any harm to science?
Including aspects of societal relevance (usefulness) into research agendas or ambitions is not generally regarded as harmful or contradictory to scientific endeavours and processes.
But the results indicate that many respondents are unsure about this issue. Respondents see a need to differentiate between different types of research. Societal impact is considered to be a matter of all research, but for some it is costlier and potentially harmful to be subjected to impact policies, while for others it may be helpful in being more efficient and solution-oriented.
“Societal impact agendas threaten scientific values. They compromise creativity, ingenuity and serendipity.”
What do the experts say?
“The question is not science for science versus science for society. There should be room (money) for both goals of research, although in both types, scientific quality should be a prerequisite.” (Respondent’s voice)
“It is great if research is useful, but exactly what is perceived as useful is a fleeting category and constantly changing, whereas most research only has an impact years or decades after its inception.” (Respondent’s voice)