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  • Meghann Ormond

How can we assess the societal impact of academic work differently?

Those of us working in academia are increasingly required to identify not only the academic impact of the work that we do but also its societal impact. This is meant to make us more accountable to the diverse array of public- and privately-funded bodies financing our work. While there are a growing number of indicators being devised to assess the societal impact of our work in one way or another (e.g., number of times our research is mentioned in the media and social media outlets, the policies developed as a result of our research, the advice we are asked to give to practitioners, etc.), several challenges persist that don't have easy answers:

- Challenge 1: How to account for not only short-term impacts but also long-term impacts?

- Challenge 2: What's the role of 'blue sky' research (i.e., generating knowledge 'merely' for knowledge's sake) in society? Should the knowledge we generate respond to contemporary real-world problems?

- Challenge 3: What are the drawbacks of trying to quantify societal impact?

- Challenge 4: How to move beyond one-size-fits-all assessment approaches and acknowledge differences across discipline and fields of study?

- Challenge 5: How realistic is it to be able to determine causality? I.e., is the work from one project/publication/etc. responsible for change, or is it part of a broader trend that is opening things up for change?

- Challenge 6: What kinds of societal impacts are valued and by whom? What kinds are not, and why?

Is there another way of doing things?

Back in 2017, Rob Fletcher and I organised a session on how to make sense of academic research’s societal impact during the Centre for Space, Place and Society's‘Value of Life’ conference in Wageningen, The Netherlands. The ideas below come from the constructive and critical discussion by academic and civil society participants in the session.

Participants proposed the following steps to begin to assess the societal impact of academic research differently:

1- Maintain and support the rigour of the academic peer-review process and do not undermine its significance by emphasising metrics that assess the societal worth of research by its (social) media popularity;

2- Teach about the institution of the university and its shifting role in society over time, acknowledging i) the function of and desire for ‘disinterested’ research in society and ii) the value of university teaching and its role in fostering the development of critical thinking among university students and others beyond the university setting;

3- Acknowledge the political, social and economic contexts in which universities are embedded and the kinds of knowledge and subjects that get produced (e.g., well-rounded middle-class citizens in a post-War era, millennial graduates burdened by student debt and with limited prospects for employability, etc.);

4- Move away from the ‘lone scholar’ imaginary by i) deploying a relational/genealogical approach to explicitly recall and acknowledge the peoples, things and institutions involved in the production and circulation of knowledge and ii) develop measures to assess collective – not individual – impact;

5- Avoid ‘extractivist’ research practices by i) fostering participatory research processes that involve societal actors from the start of the research process (e.g., participatory action research, citizen science initiatives, etc.), not only at the end and ii) enabling research to be creatively and meaningfully translated in different settings within and outside of academia

6- Develop and learn skills that enable researchers themselves to engage in these different forms of translation;

7- Foster the emergence of journalists and other kinds of ‘societal translators’ in different parts of the world and with different socio-economic backgrounds who are competent in and enthusiastic about enabling academic knowledge translation;

8- Foster greater diversity of forms of research presentation and translation within the institution/industry of academic peer-reviewed knowledge production and dissemination;

9- Improve the multidirectionality of knowledge flows, networks and collaboration so as to avoid the domination of Global North knowledge production;

10- Critically engage with underlying assumptions about the ways in which academic research’s social impacts are valued (e.g., ‘good’/’bad’ for whom, when, where?);

11- Resist the commoditisation of knowledge and its transfer by giving away the knowledge we produce, not patenting or selling it;

12- Unite and re-envision how we wish to be assessed, i) by composing confronting narratives about experiences with current impact assessment criteria and ii) developing sets of alternative societal impact criteria on which individuals, research units, disciplines and universities can be assessed.

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