How to Structurally Stimulate and Measure how Universities are Connected to Society

June 15, 2017

Speaking at the recent AESIS Impact of Science conference 2017 in Stockholm, Researchfish CEO Sean Newell took part in a panel discussion chaired by Göran Marklund, Deputy Director-General external matters of Vinnova, Sweden, with speakers Steven Wooding, Lead for Research and Analysis at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University; and Laura Hillier, Director Evaluation and Outcome Assessment at Canada Foundation for Innovation.


The four panelists debated the over-arching topic 'How to structurally stimulate and measure how universities are connected to society.'


The universities of the world are centres of innovation, discovery and excellence. But are they ivory towers where only the great and good are permitted to interact? How do universities in the 21st century interact with and benefit society? How does the great work carried out within the hallowed walls of our academic institutions impact the wider world where we all live? Clearly not all universities put such a mandate at the heart of their policy - some are focussed on teaching and some on research – but in the main, shouldn’t universities exist for the greater good?


When looking at how universities have an impact on society we need to consider what impact means, and specifically what it means to different stake holders. To the public impact tends to mean how research impacts on issues personal to them – perhaps a relative with cancer, or the impact of social policy towards young people in inner cities – something that resonates personally. From a government perspective, it’s about channelling funds in the right way, usually with a political agenda. To universities it’s about innovation, discovery and pursuit of excellence, depending on the current thinking of their stakeholders – in the UK it could be REF, in Australia ERA which I’ll come on to. In the US it’s likely to be the commercial world.


At Researchfish we talk about the pathway to impact and how by the gathering of research outcomes via a consistent and standardised question set, impact can be tracked, measured and understood, in the context in which each stakeholder views it.


At present the only formalised methodology of measuring impact in a holistic sense is carried out by the Research Councils of the UK, the charitable sector and a small but growing number of forward thinking international organisations, using the Researchfish platform. This annual process involves all the universities in the UK and has proved so successful in terms of enabling stakeholders to track the progress and impact of research that it is now becoming more widely adopted internationally as a recognised global standard for the reporting of research outcomes and impact tracking. Further it is now being used to highlight how research impacts not only the research disciplines and how they are funded, but increasingly the impact on society and the perception of how research can drive real change in the lives of people.


It is therefore incumbent on the universities as the seats of learning to ensure their interaction with society become a key pillar of their future strategies for growth. The more enlightened universities, such as Kings College London, have recognised this and are already planning the next 10 years to bring the innovations and discoveries out of the laboratory and into our lives.


As Ed Byrne, president of King’s College London says, “There has never been a more important time in modern history for great universities to make a full contribution to society.”


In the UK HEFCE have mandated that impact forms one of the core pillars of the REF - the mechanism by which UK universities get funded and additionally, Australia is taking steps towards cementing the relationship with society, where key findings, knowledge transfer and engagement activities are critical in forging that link between the seats of learning and the wider world. The more engagement activities that can be measured, the more likely those activities are to have an impact.


We have to get away from the mantra that impact is the same as counting the number of citations or the number of publications produced. While publications are no doubt important, there is a world of other outcomes of research that determine the impact. We know that something like 70% of all publications have no citations. From the Researchfish database we know that only 49% of all outcomes reported are publications and we have a database of several million outcomes!


We are in an era of data overload where money is tight and accountability is everything. We are in an unprecedented time of what some call “anti-science” so justification and evidence-based decision making is critical. Donald Trump, always a contentious subject,  has been challenging the waste and insisting on seeing the return on investment. Society demands transparency and the thirst for knowledge has never been more powerful nor more readily satisfied, but in order to achieve this there needs to be a change within the universities and what better agent for change than the students themselves. There are more of them now than ever before. They are more ambitious, more connected and more aware of global issues than any of their predecessors. Align their ambitions with those of the universities, get them motivated and you’ve got the perfect opportunity to effect the change that is required.


But demonstrating value for money, demonstrating return on investment is essential in order to regain the public trust, to prove to government that tax payers’ money is not being wasted and to justify to those funding the universities that they should continue donating. We are in the middle of a paradigm shift where we once measured success in terms of how much money was given away, to a model where we demand justification to continue spending. Over the past decade, we have become immune to waste. Billions of dollars are spent with precious little to show and nobody seems accountable.


We learned a few weeks ago in the UK that the Cancer Drugs Fund was a £1bn white elephant and why? The main reasons cited by all the experts were the lack of accountability, transparency and tracking of what the money was spent on, where good results were achieved and what should not be pursued.


Of course this latter topic is a good example of how impact is so very different for different stake holders. The patient who lives can state the impact on his or her life was tremendous and no price can be put on it, yet in terms of the wider society could that £1bn have been spent in a different way, perhaps to give him or her the same outcome but also allow others to benefit, now and in the future? Could we have run that project better? Yes, of course, with proper tools to track and measure and here is where the universities can really help change the status quo – engagement with third parties to ensure and enforce quality of assessment, tracking, evidence-based decision making.


They have the researchers and all the resources; the government, charities, trusts and business have the money to fund the work but a framework for delivering real value both in terms of impact to the public and the wider society is mandatory otherwise it becomes yet another costly policy decision. This is known in medical research as the valley of death between basic and applied research.


Of course funders have their role to play as well and society and the funders should continue the “challenge funding” initiatives to ensure that research is targeted towards addressing social requirements.


Only by measuring something do we understand it. The more granular, the better we understand and if we understand things better, we can make our lives better. So we need to connect the dots from the funding to the basic research to the applied research to the impact on society and therefore it is imperative that all universities are measured in terms of how their research impacts the world at large.


So what happens next? What are the universities going to do to meet the new societal demands? How do the universities plan to get back to their original mandate, to be an institution set up and run to benefit society? Certainly the status quo cannot continue and it is incumbent on us all to recognise that a storm is coming and the landscape will be radically different in 10 years time.


What do you think? Post your comments below.


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