Societal impact with Smarter Choices

Impact dialogue & Strategy 2024 mid-term review - A blogpost by Lili Kókai

In early 2022, Famke Mölenberg, Samare Huls, Daniëlle Cattel and myself, as the Societal Impact committee, have taken the first step towards outlining an initiative-specific strategy to maximize the impact of our Erasmus Initiative in the coming years. By means of this blog post, I would like to guide you through the results of the fruitful impact dialogue between our committee and the Action Line leaders and postdoctoral researchers of Smarter Choices. The results can be summarized along the following themes: defining societal impact; benefits of societal impact; measuring societal impact; Smarter Choices impact; and strengthening societal impact.

What is societal impact? The term societal impact can suffer from vagueness – which we wanted to overcome. Societal impact was defined by the Action Line leaders and postdoctoral researchers as high-quality research that directly or indirectly changes society for the better. Some illustrative quotes were:

  • “Changes experienced by society resulting from knowledge and expertise generated by research.”
  • “Stimulating public discussion of research, before potentially reaching a [quantitative] effect.”

What are the benefits of societal impact? We found that achieving societal impact is an intrinsic motivator of Action Line leaders and postdoctoral researchers. It was seen as “The reason to do research and teach!”. The following benefits of societally relevant research were listed:

  • “Through our research and teaching we can contribute to the solution of 'big problems' of society.”
  • “Through engaging with society, we can formulate novel, societally relevant research questions.”
  • “Impactful research can foster discussion across scientific disciplines.”
  • “Focusing on societally relevant research might increase awareness that science can contribute to the solution of societal problems and lead societal progress. In addition, it might attract researchers and students that want to work at our institutes [for the right reasons].“

Should we measure societal impact? If so, how?

In general, our colleagues agreed that we should not confine societal impact by trying to quantify it. The effects of research are often indirect, and trying to measure impact quantitatively may invite optimization along imperfect measurements, potentially leading to ill-guided allocation of resources. We should reflect on our societal impact qualitatively by keeping track of, archiving, and categorizing our societal impact activities, and reflecting on them in yearly review meetings.

How does Smarter Choices stand out? The Action Line leaders and postdoctoral researchers referred to three main strengths and priorities of Smarter Choices:

  • Interdisciplinary work: “We reach a large range of fields that are necessary for the development of successful public health policy [from economics, philosophy and psychology to sociology, medicine and epidemiology, and beyond]. Such a variety of expertise are seldom combined, which might allow us to develop unique policy proposals that have wider support and are better implementable.”
  • Independence: “Public health can be likened to advocacy at times - better health and living healthier are always good, no matter what. One of our strengths is a more balanced position.”
  • Health focus: “Health is a key priority for the bulk of the population, and we use and develop state-of-the-art methods to answer questions related to health.” 

How can we strengthen our societal impact? According to our researchers, prerequisites of impact are high-quality research practices. To follow, we can strengthen our societal impact through:

  • “Collaboration and continuous interaction with relevant societal stakeholders, and engagement with the community at various levels of society.”
  • “Consistent delivery of usable and accessible knowledge products for non-scientific audiences, such as evidence-based roadmaps, infographics, videos, and blogs.”
  • “Targeted dissemination and implementation activities, for example open access publishing, summarizing findings in popular media, and organizing workshops and science pubs.”

An important side note is that we should be aware of the (time) investment required to create societal impact. Therefore, we should create an environment that allows for societal impact to be realized – which is what Strategy 2024, especially its theme fostering a societal impact identity, is all about.

Strategy 2024 mid-term review

Mid-term reviews of Strategy 2024 are performed in Spring-Summer 2022, of which I’ve attended the one on the progress of EUR as a whole regarding Fostering Societal Impact through Excellent Academic Research. The main takeaways were to continue (and even further enhance) taking an active role in creating societal impact, and creating a culture of societal impact to achieve the milestones set for 2024.

Take an active role in creating societal impact

  • Listen (instead of talk) to society to find out what they need and want. Practice empathy instead of sticking rigidly to theory, and foster humility in addition to excellence.
  • Researchers are content experts – but we need to go further than transferring knowledge.
  • Some research processes could use an update – be open to learn new ways of operation when co-creating with stakeholders.

Create a culture of societal impact

  • Create ‘brave spaces’ where people are encouraged to challenge the status quo.
  • Ask researchers: what do you need to make more impact with what you are working on?
  • Teach people how to make an impact in a practical manner.
  • Invest in and commit to ‘impact pathways’.
  • Recognize and reward impact.

It is important to note that several of these points necessitate systematic change, for example that incentives should be available for deep-diving into societally valuable but time-consuming projects (‘invest in and commit to impact pathways’), or that university rankings should be determined in part by societal impact (‘recognize and reward impact’).

I am hopeful that the impact dialogue results serve as valuable input for an initiative-specific strategy to maximize the societal impact of Smarter Choices in the coming years, and that Strategy 2024 will allow Smarter Choices researchers to create even more societal impact than before.

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