Social impact assessment: The democratic citizens’ right to science

Issue 41: Metrics Wed 18 Apr 2018 0

Marta Soler, University of Barcelona

Science has always been oriented to the advancement of knowledge for the improvement of humanity and the human condition. Lately however, citizens’ growing push for transparency and accountability in all dimensions of the public sphere has also pushed the world of science and scientists to show how research is leading to these social improvements. Sociology and sociological research are not outside of this general trend. However, the social impact of the social sciences and the humanities (SSH) has been questioned lately and we have heard criticisms of them for being socially inefficient, ideologically biased or for being inside an ivory tower.

This criticism has resulted in budget cuts for the SSH, and the emergence of alliances among SSH associations and academics all over Europe in attempts to regain visibility and credibility. For instance, thanks to these academics, while the European Commission had decided to eliminate the SSH from H2020 framework programme, the EU Parliament supported the proposal of including a new societal challenge (i.e. Challenge 6) on inclusive societies. However, they did this under the expectation that we (the researchers) will be able to provide evidence of the social impact of the research, which addressed this challenge. This means, on our side, that we have to stop and rethink how we are doing social science, and maybe in the process recover what sociology has always really been about.

Habermas and Elster, among others, have argued that the birth and evolution of the social sciences are connected to the democratic revolutions. [1] While citizens were deciding to govern themselves there emerged an urgent need to create social sciences that contributed to knowing themselves better and to understanding the complex processes that characterised that emergent society. This project involved social theory being at the service of society, an idea that has been recently brought to the fore again with concepts such as public sociology. [2] The bureaucratization of the modern state studied by Weber has also affected the social sciences, which have partially lost their meaning. Quoting Burawoy, “knowledge for what? and for whom?” – are we doing sociology for ourselves, to be read and cited by our colleagues or do we rather want this knowledge to also reach out beyond academia and be used by wider publics? Citizens are today reacting to the bureaucratization of science and want to know its social impact, its value for the progress of society, which some scholars have even discussed in terms of a human right to science. [3] Assessing this social impact implies analysing the benefits of scientific knowledge for society, and sociology is actually in the best position to lead such a type of evaluation and assessment.

In December 2015, Nature published an article with the title “Social impact: Europe must fund social sciences” [4] which argued not only for the important contributions to social improvements from SSH research but also for the importance of the contribution of social scientists in defining these social impact assessments. What seemed to be a tunnel with no way out could rather be an opportunity to recover the original meaning of the social sciences. The move towards impact assessment is growing and will grow in all disciplines, because it is a democratic right, which is interwoven with the movement for open science. There are however private interests and opportunistic moves that are using this contingency to make profits, creating databases, metrics and systems to be sold to academic and research institutions. The possible commodification of social impact output data creates the risk of a new process of bureaucratization and the danger of losing the original meaning of open science. However, there are scholars all over the world generating alternatives to this marketisation for example: OpenAire, the Public Library of Science or the Public Knowledge Project. Today we cannot look back: if we, social scientists, do not get involved in social impact assessment by engaging with citizens and wider publics, these private interests will do it instead and our work will be evaluated under their frameworks and using their instruments instead of in relation to the needs of citizens and society.

The next framework programme of research of the European Commission (FP9) is currently under elaboration and discussion. A major issue in the definition of this programme – beyond which global challenges and concrete missions will be included and how much budget allocated – are the impact indicators of the programme. For the first time, the expert appointed to define the social impact indicators for FP9 is a sociologist.

Sociologists have been crucial in the clarification of the difference between scientific, political and social impacts, which relate to the difference between the dissemination, transfer and actual social impact of research. We have dissemination when peers, policy makers and citizens get to know about the results of research. Knowledge is disseminated through scientific journal articles, social media and different communication channels, as well as through outreach activities to broader publics. We have transfer when disseminated knowledge is used by citizens, companies or policy makers to carry out their interventions (i.e. develop programmes, policies or products). Communicative approaches (what many define today as co-creation) that increase interactions between research and diverse stakeholders are crucial here. We have social impact when the use of the knowledge resulting from research generates actual social improvements in relation to the goals established by society (i.e. UN Sustainable Development Goals or other). In the same way that there are databases and metrics that gather and measure evidence of scientific impact or transference, we need tools to gather and evaluate evidence of social impact. Repositories such as SIOR or Zennodo are non-profit initiatives that researchers can use to systematically upload quantitative and qualitative evidence of the social impact connected to their projects, in order to ensure that social impact is not a matter of self-reported narrative and can therefore be more easily evaluated. Other non-profit initiatives like ORCID are already linking to these many repositories and databases, to include in the individual researchers’ profiles the many different types of research outputs and academic work they do. In this way, very soon, when we apply for a research grant, public agencies and funders will ask us not only what our track record of publications is (as they do now) but also how our previous research has contributed to social improvements, that is, what is our trajectory of social impact. This is very good news for SSH research because this is part of our task. As social scientists, we are responsible for leading research, which contributes new knowledge, and new social theory that responds to the challenges of society. Our scientific responsibility is to target social problems, and particularly where there is suffering, such as among the unemployed, victims of gender violence, children who drop out from school, and other people at risk of social vulnerability. They are the ones who most need research, which leads to real social impact on their lives.

Creating social impact is not an easy task: not every research project will lead to direct social impact. The FP7 project IMPACT-EV has developed the concept of Research Enabling Social Impact (RESI) [5], which refers to the cumulative impact of theory and research that has contributed to further research, which in turn has achieved social impact. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 explained that when he started in the 1960s, he approached a line of research that failed, and continued with different avenues throughout his research career that also failed, until he was in the end successful in his project of finding possible connections between infectious agents and cancer. All the prior research had been necessary to enable concrete social impact. In the same way, many projects that achieve impact on society are built on knowledge produced by previous scholars. The work of all these scholars is necessary to enable social impact. Accordingly, social impact assessment needs to include both an orientation towards achieving impacts addressing societal challenges and goals, as well as a track record of evidence of the impacts achieved (middle and long-term) throughout a research trajectory.

At the European conference Science Against Poverty the former president of UNESCO addressed these words to an audience which included many academics: “I will not go again to a conference where they present diagnoses of poverty; the best diagnosis is autopsy and it comes too late. We need solutions based on scientific evidence, and we need them now”. After many years of studying poverty, one should be able to say how this trajectory has had an impact on the reduction of poverty. Citizens have the democratic right to know how research is contributing to improve their living conditions, to the progress of society; and they should be also taken into account in the evaluation of these improvements. This will contribute in turn to a dialogic turn on impact assessment and evaluation exercises.

Habermas, J. (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. - Elster, J. (1998). Deliberative democracy. Cambridge University Press.
[2] Burawoy, M. (2005). The Critical Turn to Public Sociology, Critical Sociology, 31(3), 313-326.
[3] Chapman, A.; Wyndham, J, (2013). A human right to science. Science, 340(6138), 1291.
[4] Flecha, R., Soler-Gallart, M., & Sordé, T. (2015). Social impact: Europe must fund social sciences. Nature, 528, 193.
[5] Soler-Gallart, M. (2017). Achieving Social Impact. Sociology in the Public Sphere. Dortrech: Springer.