How universities are organising themselves to create societal impact

Bird eye shot of EUR campus
group of five people sitting on a terrace

There is currently much debate on the role and responsibility of universities in addressing societal challenges, like climate change or rising inequality. Therefore, more and more Dutch universities – like Erasmus University in Rotterdam - are adding “societal impact” to their core strategy. But what does “making positive impact” mean? And what does this imply for academic institutions and researchers that work there? During the 2022 International Sustainability Transitions conference, the DIT team discussed these issues with experts Dr. Mandy-Singer Brodowski, Prof. Ioan Fazey and Dr. Bror Giesenbauer. This blog post represents our personal reflection on the discussions we had.

Written by Kristina Bogner, Julia Wittmayer and Mayte Beekman 

‘Impact’ as a loaded concept

Impact is a loaded concept that can mean different things. Traditionally, scientific impact is mostly defined by measures such as the number of publications and citations researchers have, or how much funding and grants they raise. However, over the past decades, our understanding of impact has changed. Several scholars have done outstanding work in science communication and dissemination. They communicate their research findings and engage with a broad public. Other scholars go a step further and state that we should understand “societal impact” in an even broader sense. They argue that impact should be a part of the research process itself because the societal challenges we are facing today are too complex to be addressed by scientists alone, let alone by communicating knowledge in the sense of disseminating it to the outside world. Researchers should include the public in their research by co-creating knowledge with stakeholders, for example, in workshops, action-oriented research projects or living labs.

The need for dialogue on societal impact

There are thus different understandings of the impact that researchers and universities can have. We, as researchers, therefore, need to exchange and discuss our different understandings of impact with each other. Only then do the important underlying questions of impact as a loaded concept come up. What do we consider ‘positive’ societal impact, and how do we want to reach this? Who can decide why we need to have societal impact and who has the legitimacy to decide how to proceed? And who holds power, who benefits and who can, in the end, be held accountable for the impact we have?

Rethinking the purpose of our academic system

Moreover, thinking about societal impact also requires thinking about the system that we as researchers are working in. Is the purpose of the academic system to offer spaces for the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge and the development of independent thinkers? Is it to generate applied knowledge that improves economic growth rates and international competitiveness and trains students to be good workers? Is it to facilitate collaborative learning, knowledge co-creation and sensemaking processes together with societal stakeholders? Or is it something in between or completely different?

Many scholars argue that our current academic system is not well-suited to produce societally relevant knowledge. For example, researchers are evaluated based on the number of publications, citations and research grants rather than on the broader societal impact of their research. On top of that, researchers that want to contribute to research with impact face several obstacles in the academic system. They often have little time to do engagement activities, are not rewarded for it and get little support from supervisors or peers.

Therefore, we as researchers need to rethink how our current academic system can actually contribute to the goal of having societal impact. As Prof. Ioan Fazey put it in our dialogue:

“If we want to transform societal systems, we need to transform the way we do research. And this directly translates to a fundamental reshaping of sense and purpose of academic institutions”.

“Such a shift requires changes in what we do (operational), our assumptions that drive what we do (conceptual) and our identity and purpose (existential). (…) If we accept that society needs wide-scale transformation to overcome contemporary challenges like climate change, then universities will also need to transform if they want to play a major part in this.”

Societal impact means getting out of the ivory tower

Hence, discussing societal impact must not be an ivory tower task. When we want to have positive societal impact, it is not only up to us to decide what that means. We must engage in discussions with those that we want to have an impact on – society - what this actually means. As Mandy Singer-Brodowski states:

“Thinking about societal impact from the perspective of educational science means considering the different multifaceted relations between academics and non-academics, where knowledge is mobilised, inter-organisational work processes are facilitated and transformation processes are catalysed.”.

A key issue concerns who is included in the research process is and what the research process should look like. Dr. Mandy Singer-Brodowski has a clear vision on this: “Societal impact means considering relations between academics and non-academics.”. In this view, the scientist is not the “expert” that has all the knowledge. Rather, research with impact is conducted together with societal stakeholders, policymakers and companies. This includes, of course, more traditional research and science communication, but starts much earlier by shaping relationships, developing the right questions (e.g. together with societal stakeholders), and shifting discourses.

The need for change at our universities

To support this engaged and participatory research, we need to rethink the role of our universities in society. How do universities have to change to foster engaged research and contribute to positive societal impact?

Ioan Fazey argues that it is also important to take a step back here. Instead of focusing on increasing our current impact, universities should think about how they can contribute to impact by supporting wider societal changes:

“Universities already have major impacts in society as they are embedded in, and reinforce current patterns of education, science and technology. For example, they support and perpetuate certain ways of thinking about learning or examining and thus wider notions of what is important in society. (…) The point then is not so much about how to increase societal impact, but rather how universities need to change to be able to support wider societal changes, such as in narratives and what people consider important.”

So, the honest answer to what we mean by societal impact must be that we must find out continuously and collectively.

Bror Giesenbauer also acknowledges that universities should support wider changes in society.  He argues that science can take the more traditional role of a neutral observer, providing a realistic ‘map’ of what the world looks like (e.g. in climate modelling and communication). But he also says that universities should do more:

“And higher-education institutions need to become better at exploring how societies can change. They might need to get better at providing safe testing beds for the exploration of larger ideas, i.e. of the transformation of organisations and even society.”

three people sitting in chairs in a row and listening

To change academia, research(ers) must change.

Transforming our academic system towards societal impact also means that we have to transform ourselves as researchers. Mandy Singer-Brodowski highlights that these types of deep learning processes are important:

“Especially because researchers themselves are deeply entangled in disciplinary scientific communities and economically and politically influenced higher education institutions, this causes frictions and conflicting aims.”

So, transforming the systems we are embedded in ourselves is an emotional task requiring some self-reflection with all the difficulties this entails.  But this offers room for change.

“Irritations and dilemmas can become fruitful starting for self-reflection and transformative learning processes of researchers that contribute to self-reflexivity and coping with complexity, especially when rooms for exchange and certain communicative conditions between researchers exist.”

Creating brave spaces for reflection, learning and action

So, when we take the movement for positive societal impact seriously, we must confront ourselves as researchers with sometimes difficult and uncomfortable questions. That could be done by creating brave spaces within our universities: spaces where there is room for reflection, (un)learning, confrontation and collective sensemaking. Those spaces can be international (e.g. research communities around certain topics), but it is also important that these spaces are facilitated at universities. For example, Utrecht University has a program on Public Engagement and several strategic themes that emphasize inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations. We must support these brave spaces if we want to foster the movement towards engaged, participatory research that contributes to society. We, as researchers, should continue the dialogue at our universities and beyond because a move to societal impact is a collective and collaborative journey.

More information on our experts:

  • Professor Ioan Fazey, University of York. His research and teaching focuses on how to support transformations to sustainability. This includes how transformations of different kinds of formalised knowledge institutions (like Universities) is needed so they can play a more significant role in shaping wider societal transformations.
  • Dr. Bror Giesenbauer works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bremen and as network coordinator for the German Society for Sustainability at Higher Education Institutions (DG HochN). His research focuses on the role of worldviews in the transformation of higher education institutions.
  • Dr. Mandy Singer-Brodowski is an educational scientist from her background and is leading different research projects on Education for Sustainable Development, Transformative Learning and Organisational Culture for Sustainability in Higher Education at the Freie Universität Berlin.
More information

About the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform

The Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform creates infrastructures for transformative academic work at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Read more about our work here.

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