It’s a long-held wish on the government’s part: research performed at the Netherlands’ universities should yield more direct advantages for the economy and society. Knowledge shouldn’t be left on the shelf collecting dust.

But how to encourage scholars to increase the impact of their work? Rewarding them seems logical enough. But according to the physicist Richard van de Sanden, we should be cautious about this approach. It could have an adverse effect, predicts Sanden, who serves as Director of the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research and professor at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Sanden co-authored a recent KNAW opinion about increasing the social impact of research. Former VVD State Secretary Sander Dekker had asked the Academy for recommendations.


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What could actually go wrong when you include social impact as a consideration when allocating research funding?

“The problem is that it’s almost impossible to establish effective parameters. Imagine you decide to measure social impact based on the number of patents. This makes sense, but what happens when you add funding to the mix? Then scholars will start maximising the number of patents – shifting the focus away from social impact.”

You argue for ‘narratives’ as an alternative approach. What do you mean by this term?

“Stories. At the start of a project, you can ask the scholars to specify who could benefit from the results of their research. In itself, this process already increases social impact, since it brings all sorts of people in touch with each other. For example, you could involve patients’ organisations in your medical research project from the outset. Or take research performed by an Arabist: the findings could be relevant for a wide range of people – but they do need to know you’re working on it first.”

Isn’t this kind of ‘storytelling’ too noncommittal?

“The problem is we can’t predict the social impact of research in advance. We simply lack the knowledge to do so. Even institutes for applied research, which have tonnes of experience when it comes to utilising research results, are never entirely sure about the outcome. And there’s a lot you can read between the lines with these narratives. If all the application has to offer is a stray ‘utilisation paragraph’, you know how that will pan out.”

Is social impact necessarily desirable or feasible?

“It shouldn’t be a decisive factor in every single project. In the case of a mathematician working to establish some theorem or other, social impact may not be particularly relevant. And in some cases, it can be important to repeat an old scientific experiment – even though its benefit for today’s society could be limited.”

The Cabinet wanted to know how you can map out the impact of research. What’s your take?

“You can already find a wealth of information in all sorts of research evaluations. One idea could be publishing a periodic report regarding research impact – similar to how the Netherlands Institute for Social Research keeps track of trends in Dutch society. You could also try to determine why some research projects have a greater impact than others, and which lessons we can draw from this.”