Impact Practitioners

What do researchers think about societal impact?

By 05/01/2023

This 20-page academic paper by Benedikt Fecher and Marcel Hebing studies what researchers think about achieving societal impact. To find out how researchers approach societal impact, what they think about it, what their goals are, and what communication methods they use, Fecher and Hebing surveyed nearly 500 researchers based in Germany.

Fecher and Hebing discover that most researchers regard societal engagement as a part of their job and are generally in favour of societal impact evaluation. Additionally, more than half of the surveyed researchers think that evaluations should place more weight on non-academic impact. However, the study shows that few researchers think that achieving societal impact is a priority at their institution, and even fewer believe their institution’s communication departments reach relevant stakeholders

Most commonly, the surveyed researchers want to contribute to education as a way of achieving societal impact. However, the researchers’ goals vary greatly and are largely dependent on their specialisation and discipline. While natural scientists see their goals in the environment, innovation and health-improvement fields, social scientists’ aims are centred more on civic society, social justice, politics and public discourse. Humanities scholars also picked discourse-oriented goals and preserving cultural heritage as their main aim.

When it comes to tools researchers use for engagement and communicating their results, the most commonly used are events (such as public lectures, exhibitions and expert panel discussions), followed by public relations (i.e. comment pieces in newspapers or interviews) and educational programmes for schools and civil society groups. Young scholars and those researching humanities often use social media to communicate results, while social scientists usually have the most experience with advisory channels such as reports for politicians, public administration, companies and NGOs. 

Fecher and Hebing identify several practical conclusions stemming from their research. Firstly, the authors recommend setting up decentralised support structures as researchers are generally dissatisfied with institutional communication departments. Secondly, evaluation assessments should be responsive to the differences between academic disciplines. For example, purely focusing on the economic impact of research would be discriminatory against social scientists and humanities scholars. Finally, researchers should not overuse online tools such as social media as the only way of generating impact.

To sum up, most researchers agree that societal impact is a part of their job and should be evaluated and measured. However, in general, they do not feel supported by their institutions.

This article is part of our initiative, R2A Impact Practitioners. To find out more, please click here.

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