In this first of two blog posts Marco Masia, PhD MBA takes a deep dive into the meaning of impact and research with a specific look at social sciences and humanities.
On the 26th of September 2022, the DART mission, for the first time in history, successfully achieved something that until then was considered science fiction: it smashed an asteroid into a new orbit. The NASA crew that had spent years designing and leading the mission immediately saluted this great accomplishment with these words: “[…] we have impact! Impact for humanity in the name of planetary defense […]” (if you are curious, check out this YouTube clip). Apart from the pun that was certainly intended, this sentence conveys the essence of what the societal impact of research and innovation means. If you think about it, the concept is not trivial to understand.
The first time I was confronted with it was when I first applied for a European grant in 2005. The evaluation of most proposals in EU framework programmes is articulated in three main criteria: excellence, impact, and implementation. Broadly speaking, “impact” refers to the set of activities within a project that maximizes the transfer of new knowledge to society, be it in the form of communication and dissemination, or in the form of exploitation of intellectual property (for more details, you might want to have a look at the document for reviewers of the current framework programme). Although it may seem on par with the other two criteria, that part was the most difficult for me to write. Until then, I had always thought of research as a linear process where curiosity would spark the acquisition of new knowledge. In my naïve concept of research, impact would be achieved only downstream, after other stakeholders would learn about the outcomes and would think of their real-world applications.
The project was funded, although I planned only for a few communication and dissemination activities, which even I did not believe would be beneficial to anybody else than the reviewers assessing my proposal. Despite my scepticism about the value of this criterion, the idea of considering “impact” as something essential in research was seeded in my brain and I have been thinking about its many aspects and working on some of them since then.
Impact and SSH
In the conversation about research and innovation, it often happens that science and technology have the stage and social sciences and humanities are not mentioned. This is partly because we tend to glamorise human ingenuity only when it comes to developing new technologies or understanding the fundamental laws governing the universe. In my opinion, this has caused a perilous drift into a STEM-dominated world where SSH is often considered ancillary to science and technology.
Recently, we experienced how glamorising science and technology and excluding social scientists from the design of countermeasures to COVID-19 (from lockdowns to vaccination campaigns) has resulted in negative outcomes and polarization in society. While a lot of effort and a huge financial investment was directed by governments to develop the technology, social scientists were not involved sufficiently and therefore the potential of their research was mostly untapped. We risk similar outcomes if social sciences and humanities are not included in the development of what we call deep tech (AI and machine learning, robotics, quantum tech, batteries, etc.).
It is therefore important to create a culture of impact inclusive of all disciplines. To better understand how relevant this is for the entire research and innovation process, we will in my next blog post clarify how it works.
Expert in Academic Entrepreneurship, Marco is a technology transfer manager at the University of Vienna. He is also the founder and managing director of MARMAS GmbH, a company working at the intersection between research, innovation, and policy. Earlier he worked as Executive Coordinator of the Initiative for Science in Europe and as Assistant Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Sassari, Italy. He has also been a board member of the Marie Curie Alumni Association. He holds a PhD in Physics (Polytechnic University of Catalonia) and an executive MBA (Frankfurt School for Finance & Management).