Research 2030

Blending societal impact and research strategy – two experts explain what needs to change and why

November 19, 2021 Elsevier Season 2 Episode 9
Blending societal impact and research strategy – two experts explain what needs to change and why
Research 2030
More Info
Research 2030
Blending societal impact and research strategy – two experts explain what needs to change and why
Nov 19, 2021 Season 2 Episode 9

In this episode, Director of AESIS Anika S. Duut van Goor and senior institutional capacity builder Toñi Caro, discuss the nuts and bolts of societal impact. They consider: 

  • What it will take to build a true societal impact culture  
  • Who can play a key role 
  • The importance of patience and perseverance 
  • The power of ambassadors of change 

"[For societal impact] you need the incentives, you need the policies, you need the skills, you need the people who are excited to move forward, you need the infrastructures… it is an all-encompassing way of working."
Anika S. Duut van Goor 

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Director of AESIS Anika S. Duut van Goor and senior institutional capacity builder Toñi Caro, discuss the nuts and bolts of societal impact. They consider: 

  • What it will take to build a true societal impact culture  
  • Who can play a key role 
  • The importance of patience and perseverance 
  • The power of ambassadors of change 

"[For societal impact] you need the incentives, you need the policies, you need the skills, you need the people who are excited to move forward, you need the infrastructures… it is an all-encompassing way of working."
Anika S. Duut van Goor 

Desai (00:00) 

Hello, I’m Shruti Desai, stepping in for Giacomo for today’s episode. Welcome to Research 2030, an Elsevier podcast series in which our guest experts discuss, debate and dissect the complex topics that research institutions are grappling with. And welcome to our latest episode. 

 Today we are exploring two themes that are becoming ever more closely entwined - research strategy and societal impact of research.  

 Increasingly, funders, governments, society at large, want the reassurance that the research their money is funding is going to have real-world impact. With global challenges mounting and R&D budgets shrinking, we’ve seen initiatives like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals launched - 17 interlinked global targets designed to provide a "blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all".  

 So, how do universities ensure their research is satisfying this growing appetite for societal impact? What changes do they need to make to their strategy plans? What support do they need to offer researchers? And how can they raise the visibility of their achievements? 

 Who better to help us answer these questions than Anika S. Duut van Goor, Director of AESIS, an international, open community for professionals working to stimulate and demonstrate the impact of science on economy, culture and well-being? She is joined by Toñi Caro, a senior institutional capacity building consultant and former Director of the International Research Project Office at Spain’s University of Deusto. They are joined by our guest host for today’s episode, Elsevier’s Director of Content Marketing, Marianne Parkhill. 


Parkhill (01:49) 

Welcome to both of you 

 Duut van Goor (01:52) 

Thank you.  


Thank you. 

 Parkhill (01:56) 

Let's kick off with the question of what is your interest and background and the societal impact of science and innovation? 

 Duut van Goor (2:04) 

Well personally, I actually aspired a career in academia a long time ago. I did a research master's in political science and I worked at university and while being there, I actually realized, and I hope none of my old colleagues mind me saying this, but it was quite a typical  ivory tower type of situation, and that made me realize I wanted to be more in society. And I never pursued that career in the end, not yet at least. And ironically, actually I wasn't looking for it, but I got in touch with Frank Zwetsloot, who was running a company trying to connect science with society. And I was hired to run the AESIS network, which was at the time was still part of a different organization, and I've been running it ever since. 


Duut van Goor (03:00) 

We're now a separate organization and what we do is we try to bridge science and society and on an international level, we bring people together. We also give advice and do some research, but mostly we bring people together to discuss on the one hand how do you evaluate, measure and assess societal impact of science, as this is, of course, something that is often needed and wanted by funders, by institutions, etc. And, on the other hand, we look at how you stimulate and optimize and advance the societal impact of science. Now, these two pillars as we call them are of course very much connected, but we bring people such as policy-makers, research managers, science metricians, people from industry, we bring everyone together to discuss all kinds of topics within the broad spectrum of societal impact of science. We talk about things such as tackling grand challenges, indicators for impact, how to create an institutional strategy that includes impact, all kinds of things. That's what we try to accomplish and that's the organization that I am running. 


Caro (04:30) 

In my case, my interest goes hand by hand with my background. I have been in charge of the internationalization of research and innovation at the medium size, non-research-intensive university in the north of Spain in Bilbao, and the Basque country, because we have different campuses. And now I think I'm ready to bring all this knowledge I have treasured for these 20 years to, to the world. I usefully use one. I love metaphors and I usefully start my communications on my courses with this slide, which is a woman in front of the landscape with some bridges that are okay, but many, many bridges that are broken. And that's my experience in these 20 years, you know, I have had many researchers in my office come in, saying this, and we have been developing this, and now we come to the end users and they think these are not useful for them. 


Caro (05:35) 

This is not the thing they were expecting. Or when I was talking with the policymakers, they were complaining the research is very slow and that the answers came very late for the decision making they have to do. It was all the time, these bridges that were not connected from one side to the other, between research and innovation and society or research and innovation and the policy making. And for me, the, what triggered me was how we can make a change here, how we can transform this in a way that we find places where people can come together, can think together, post research questions together in another manner, because everything was so established that everybody was in their own silos and in their own ways of doing things. So, yeah, I was, yeah, have been very entrepreneurial inside the institution, but also working with the ecosystem around and also connected with the international peers. So that's an amazing trip. 


Parkhill (06:48) 

Yeah. I, I think your image of the broken bridges and working in silos is, is very apt. I like thinking about it that way. I think those are the challenges. And speaking of challenges, what, in your opinion is needed to generate a true societal impact culture? 


Caro (07:08) 

The system needs to be transformed in a deep manner and we have to do this transformation in a multilevel way, starting from the institution and all, but also with the researchers themselves, I mean, to change their mindset of, we need to do science in a more collaborative manner. We need to do science in a, in a manner that we think on how these have the potential to transform the world. And but also at the local level, the national level or the regional, the national and international levels, all these multi level transformation and connections. I go back again to, to build these bridges there, but also do these horizontal connections between people coming, for example, from the engineering world, coming together with the social scientists when you see different people in a table, one of the first thing that happened, and, and for me, that's magic is that they don't understand each other because they have different language, different concepts, different methodologies. 


Caro (08:26) 

And there is a moment when they start building trust and building this dialogue that they kind of start posing the questions together. And that's also building these, these connections that make this transformation we realized that when we brought students and children into the debates for research and innovation, how they dreamt dream something, eh, the whole language changed and the needs for the different, eh, people sitting in the table, the different stakeholders were adapting to understand the, the needs of everyone. So yeah, for me, that would be how to transform deeply, the societal impact culture that's that we need to go through. 


Parkhill (09:16) 

Anika, do you have something to add to that? 


Duut van Goor (09:19) 

Yes. Well, I, I have to absolutely agree with Toni. The world itself is in many cases in need of transformation. And so we often don't even speak about impact, which is in, well, it sounds more like, having a, sort of a, a change or a nudge, but in fact, the world needs transformation. And for that to happen with the help of science, the entire science ecosystem needs a transformation. And what you see a lot in many countries is that societal impact as a movement is sort of being added on, added onto funding, schemes, and proposals that you can have add in, added to the tasks of researchers, added as a a new department within an institution. But in fact what you need is that the other ways, and the other things that we are already doing need to actually be integrated with impact, if you ask me, and I also agree with Toni that you need all stakeholders in the entire ecosystem to be able to well, to reach that, you need the funders, you need the policymakers, you need the research managers, administrative support, you need the researchers themselves. 


Duut van Goor (10:40) 

And you need all the societal actors as well. Because what I like to do in many of our meetings is ask people how they would define impact. And because we have such a diverse audience every time, both in professional background and in nationality, the, the descriptions of what impact even is, is often very different. So, let alone, how do you approach it and how do you align your strategies to match this? So you need people on the, on the ground to be excited and willing to work to have more societal impact with science, you need people in leadership to do that, and everyone involved or in between. But this is a transformation that will probably take a lot of time. 


Caro (11:32) 

Yeah. And I will add to that, that there are many, many resistances, I think we have all listened to these quests, these sentence that says, this has been done always this way. And when you have these leaders or these, I, I like to call them agents of change, so these early adopters and these people that already have some sensitivity on impact and also some training, and they want to push forward, they need a lot of innovation to, to bring in. But that means that the institutions are forced to do things in a different manner. And that means more work, that means perseverance. And that means these long-term processes. So we need to, to think that it's not going to happen, the changes it won't happen in, in, in one year, two years, it takes a long time, and we need to do these capacity building for these people to, to be leading the process. So yeah. Takes energy and creativity and innovation. 


Parkhill (12:48) 

Yeah. I mean, transformation is a big word, right. That's that does, that does imply patience and a long time, but given that, do you have any specific recommendations for universities to, to do for instance, is there something they could write into their research strategy plans that would address societal impact and, and help lead on the transformation? 


Duut van Goor (13:13) 

Yes. absolutely. And that is also something that we work with a lot, also Toni and I together, helping institutions integrate impact in their strategy and how to implement that. And execute it. I think we'll, we'll have a lot of different universities, right? Some of them are still trying to catch up and, and, and keep up with the current you know, demand for societal impact. And some of them are, are, are front runners, actually, making causing much of the transformation from the university level. So, for any university, the, the next steps and the first things to do will be extremely different. However, as I said about the ecosystem, it's the same within an institution. You need both the people on the ground to be excited about it, you need people in leadership to be excited about it. 


And because what you need is you need a change of culture; you need a change your policy. You know, policy can, can include incentives for impact. It needs to create time to focus on impact. You need to change your whole evaluation system to see, you know, where are your strengths and weaknesses, what can be improved in order to have more impact. You need to think about what kind of skills do your researchers or the rest of your staff need, what kind of facilities might be needed to be built. So we often see it a bit in a, in sort of a circle of you know, you define your mission, from that you define your strategy, and then within the implementation of this strategy, you need to look at your internal infrastructure. 


You need to look at your external infrastructure, where are you in the landscape of science and society. And how can you build a structure external as well of collaboration, long-term structured collaboration, an infrastructure in which you can facilitate this impact more. It is an all-encompassing way of working. You need to include so many things. And some universities will have a very strong facilities in place to support this. And others will have a strong evaluation system. But you need all of it. You need the incentives, you need the policies, you need, the skills, you need the people who are excited to, to move forward, you need the infrastructures. So yeah, I it's, it depends on the university, but these are all the things that you at least need to keep in mind. If you ask me. 


Caro (16:17) 

And building on all the things that already Anika says, I think you have tackled many of the issues that need to be in these impact strategies and agendas, I would say, I would say that in every case, because of all these different types of institutions and also the paths or the work that has been already done in each institution is different, we need to tailor make these impacts. We have been working with three dimensions, more the conceptual side of impact, the instrumental one, and the capacity building one. As Anika was saying, depending on, on the muscle of the institution, what is more developed or not, if, for example, you have an institution that is aware that impact is important, but they haven't done these reflection on how the societal impact that they want to achieve is linked, or it's working together with the mission and the vision that this institution has. 


Caro (17:33) 

They have to go through this conceptual reflection, and that means that they need specific actions for doing this reflection. And it has to be a part of the, of the plan, but also, you need the instrumental side of that. You can have a good concept of the societal impacts, but if you don't do anything to achieve any progress, you will be stuck. I think we were very lucky because our previous vice rector for research and innovation put the impact on the agenda, and it was one of the master plans that she put forward, and we had the specific actions there to have, for example, these research results translated to a language that the end users or the policymakers could understand and use as guidelines for things that were done at the research level. And one of the things that she was really worried, and we have been pursuing from, from I think 5, 6, 7 years ago, is the capacity building of researchers, of research, support officers, and also the leaders of the university. So it has to be encompassing. You need to bring the three dimensions into the, into the agenda and tailor made for each institution. 


Parkhill (19:13) 

Yeah. Thank you. I was just wondering if you see the change, the transformations that need to happen, accelerating, you know, given the global attention to obviously COVID-19 and, and the growing global attention on climate change, do you see universities embracing the idea of societal impact in science more? 


Caro (19:44) 

We have seen with COVID 19 that the scientists were warning us and the policymakers, we need more investment in research and innovation, because this is going to happen one day or another, and we were not paying attention to them. So I think there is this, this entanglement between research and innovation and society. And we need to convince researchers that they need to, to make the effort of explaining that research. And some of them already do it in a very good way. Explaining science the things that they are doing in a manner that their grandmother can understand what they are doing, because if society doesn't understand why research and innovation is important, we are going to have more problems to get funding for research and for innovation. 


We think now that the researchers are superheroes and they can do many, many things, but they are not, they have limited time for many things and we need, so give them the tools and also the training for not only presenting research resolve in a scientific way. 


Duut van Goor (21:15) 

Yeah, I think besides time it's also simply a matter of, of what are your talents. You know, there are one or two of those, as Tony said, superheroes that seem to be able to do everything, do a excellent research and, and be a fantastic blog writer and an amazing entrepreneur, and sure, is also one of the best teachers. And there's, there's a handful of people who, who do that, but in general, everyone’s different. And I, I want to point out the, the, the thing that Toni said about tailor made approaches. I think that applies to a lot of it, it, I think it should apply to the promotion and tenure within an institution, you know that's that, that, that people who happened to be an amazing teacher and a researcher should be rewarded for that, while someone who is fantastic at reaching out to external stakeholders and also a good researcher should be promoted for should be rewarded for that. 


Duut van Goor (22:18) 

And the same goes with, with what kind of skills or what kind of what kind of facilities do you want to offer them? Some might be benefiting from communication courses, but others might benefit from finance courses, maybe if you want it. So, but it depends on the person. So, I think on the one hand, we have a large demand of, we want more societal impact. But on the other hand, it's also quite I think the approach should also be quite individual focused as in make use of the talents that you have, create teams that that put together these, these talents, if I may say something maybe strange about the question, whether COVID-19, or, or the sustainable development goals focus, or the climate change problems that we face, if that changed views much, I have to be honest that I didn't see many changes of topics or steps or at our, at our meetings. 


Duut van Goor (23:34) 

Yes, of course more examples about COVID-19, but the way was already paved, so all it mostly did was actually show the rest of the world as well, where problems are, where the opportunities are. It was common knowledge for many of us that that policymakers will tend to listen to only certain disciplines, which was only made more clear when most governments were only listening to virologist center and other health experts, but left the social science scientists and the humanities scholars out often, not always, of course, but were very less so, but that was something that happened before as well, it's just now painfully clear to others as well. And I think the pandemic itself might not have that much effect on, on, on the development of policies for impact, and then strategies for impact. 


Duut van Goor (24:39) 

What has been, of course, are things like social media you know, fake news, misinformation, open science, those types of developments have affected many of the discussions that we've had. We always see big debates within should you incentivize through funding? Should you incentivize societal impact? Where does that leave curiosity-driven research? That has been a discussion for decades and it still is, but then there's other questions such as what is the effect of open science, as I mentioned, how can we have more international collaboration to actually face these grand international challenges that we see, that has an effect, the evolvement of big data and AI has a big effect on how people view societal impact and how they handle it. As I mentioned, the credibility of science the misinformation that we see now, those are, those are the difficult well, the, the challenges that, that, that institutions and the whole ecosystem will face when focusing on impact. 


Caro (26:02) 

And if I might add to that, we have been reflecting a lot, and that's something I would like to do in the following, eh, professional career time, how can we talk about these three pillar transition, not only the twin transition, but having the society in the center, not aside, as adding social science and humanities to other science, but to put society in the middle of, or in the center of our research questions, because that's what we are talking about. We are talking about sustainable, better leaving the planet and for, for getting all these, we need people engaged and we need a change in behavior, and we need the ecosystem working together and align with them for the common goods. And that means that this needs to be balanced. And the, the way the programs and the funding, the funding programs are, built so far. 


Caro (27:20) 

And we, we know more the, the European system, but I think it's more or less the same in the States, and also in, in other parts of the world, is we have more funding for the health science, for the for technology and digitalization and all that. But we are forgetting about society, which for us, and we have been working a lot with the European school on social innovation on this triple transition, eh, society needs to be in the center in the front of all the research questions so that we make things working for us as human as human beings.  


Parkhill (28:17) 

Yes, very interesting. So we've, we've had a wide ranging conversation about, you know, the research ecosystem and the transformations that are needed and the built the bridges that needed to be built and some specifics around tenure and promotion and some other topics. So, my last question for both of you is what are one or two concrete actions that you would recommend to universities to enhance the social impact cultures you have been talking about? 


Duut van Goor (28:47) 

So, Toni and I often speak about what Toni calls, the agents of change, and what I like to call the impact ambassadors. We mean the same people, there's people who are already extremely excited and working and thinking about this. And I think it's important for these people to engage, learn from each other and spread the word world word, and create awareness of what is possible and what we can do. And that might be not an entire objective opinion, because that is basically the work that AESIS does, bring these people together. But I think that is extremely important to start with. Because as soon as you, for example, if you're at a university and you are one of these impact ambassadors, you want to create a change in how things are done at the university. 


Duut van Goor (29:39) 

It's good to know that there are others as well, in and outside of your institution who are excited and willing to make this transformation happen as well. And as soon as you have a group of a team of people together, you can start by mapping. What does the university already do? Draw your conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses. See which other people you will need to make this transformation and create a team and start working from there and make sure that you reach out to as many people, because in the end, as I think I said at the beginning, we need everyone, the entire ecosystem to get behind the transformation that is needed for us to transform the world.  


Caro (30:27) 

When you have all these resistances, and then all these usually the people that these ambassadors or agents of change, the people that want to make the change, get these angry faces when they go to their bosses or their superiors, or to the people around them saying this one is coming again, and is going to propose something that will complicate our life. And that means that the atmosphere is not men in many, in many institutions, easy but hostile because people are usefully overdoing things. So, because we have already many things in our plates. So what I would say is we need to identify who are these early adopters and these people with creativity and perseverance, because you need the people with ideas, but also you need people with perseverance and with this long term vision that they know that it will take time and they are not alone. 


Caro (31:51) 

And that's the connection that Anika was saying, if we can demonstrate that there are other people doing these changes in different institutions, if we can bring the lessons learned in different institutions to other ones, we can, these people don't need to invent or reinvent the wheel all the time, but they, they can learn from each other. And we can do this focus on this third dimension I was mentioning before the capacity building, so that they are more equipped to keep ongoing with the, with the change. The good thing that could happen in an institution is that the bottom up and the top down comes together, eh, at the moment. And they can think together on how to boost the change. And that's what we seen we can do with them AESIS, with the work that Anika and myself are envisioning now, thinking we, we know there are things that are working, we can, we can train people and at different levels in distribution so that these, this process of changes is put in place. So yeah, it, it will take some effort and it will take time, but I, I really liked to, to dream and to think that this possible and the future is there.  


Parkhill (33:30) 

Well, I think that's a great way to end let's dream and think it's possible and keep working on that future. So, Anika and Toni, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your views on societal impact in science.  


Duut van Goor (33:50) 

Thank you so much for having us, and for inviting us. It was wonderful. Thank you. 


Caro (33:56) 

Yeah. Thank you, Marianne. And Elsevier, I think it's so interesting and inspiring for all of us, so thank you very much.  


Desai (34:10) 

As Marianne notes, transformation is a big word, but it’s clear that for both Anika and Toni, nothing less than an in-depth rethink of the entire science ecosystem will enable us to fully embed societal impact in the research process. This will require the involvement of all stakeholders, from funders and policy makers to researchers themselves. 


Equally important will be finding ways to bridge the gap between researchers and society, so that scientists can share their results more effectively, empowering people to better understand the value of their work and the benefits it brings. 


We want to thank both Anika and Toni for sharing their knowledge with us here on Research 2030. If you have questions or comments about this episode, or the podcast in general, we would love to hear them! Send us an email at


Interested in learning more about AESIS? Our show notes contain more information and links to explore. 


Oh, and don't forget to sign up to Research 2030 on your favorite podcast provider – that way, you'll be the first to hear about new episodes. Thank you for joining us today. I’m Shruti Desai– until next time.