Researcher turns investor for greater impact

Exploring transformative research with Ronald Huisman
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portrait of ronald huisman

Ronald Huisman wears two hats: As a part-time Associate Professor at the Erasmus School of Economics, he studies and teaches sustainable finance. As a part-time investor, Ronald focuses on impact-oriented companies. Combining his academic work with investment activities allows Ronald to do what is often difficult in academia: making an impact. We spoke to Ronald about how academia has long hampered impactful, transformative work- and how things are beginning to change. 

Dedicating one’s academic career to impact is not straightforward. This was one of Ronald’s early lessons when he began to study the links between sustainable finance and the energy transition in 1988. While colleagues who studied more traditional finance topics published papers in established journals and soon advanced in their careers, the focus on sustainability slowed down Ronald’s. “The system does not reward you for doing that, it basically blocks it”, he says. At the time, research on sustainable finance was not considered important, and publishing about it was limited to ‘low impact’ journals. Even when the energy market was liberalized and became a financial market, “established journals were slow to recognize these changes”, explains Ronald.  

Investing in impact companies 

However, Ronald was – and continues to be - driven by a strong motivation to make an impact. He stuck to his research focus, and soon discovered that becoming an impact investor allowed him to contribute to society in ways that academia alone did not. It also decreased his dependence on his career level at the university. Ronald now invests in companies that “can create an impact but are not ready to deal with investments from banks or big investors”. To him, helping small and medium sized enterprises scale up their ideas is key to driving fundamental change.  

Academia is changing 

While academia, and especially the traditional field of finance, have long hampered impact, Ronald recognizes that things are beginning to change. Already ‘low impact journals’ have exceeded the rankings of traditional journals. Even more inspiring are students who are demanding change: “They ask us to focus more on sustainability or on impact in our courses”, says Ronald. To make more room for impactful, transformative science, he recommends that impactful work - be it on a big or small scale, mandatory or voluntary - “should be rewarded, as part of your tenure.” 

Transformative research addresses persistent societal problems by developing action, socially robust knowledge, and scientific knowledge that fosters just sustainability transitions. This kind of research takes a critical standpoint vis-à-vis dominant cultures, structures and practices that are evidenced to be persistently unsustainable or unjust and aspires to contribute to their transformation. To this end, actors from different scientific disciplines and societal domains work together in a systematic co-production setting and process.

This blog series explores the many facets of transformative research in practice and discusses the changes necessary in universities and the academic system to enable such research. We are interested in questions such as: How are people doing research that addresses societal challenges and/or contributes to making our societies more just and sustainable? In which ways are they innovating the way research is done? What are they struggling with in doing so? Why are they doing transformative research and what excites them about it? If you have a story to share about doing transformative research yourself, please reach out to the DIT platform

If you want to read more on transformative research, the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) also publishes a series of blog posts on the subject. The series of ISS is aimed at stimulating discussions on transformative methodologies.

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