Many research funding agencies have recently adopted what I define here as the new impact agenda. Naturally, funding agencies want to know what is the impact of the research they have funded. The new impact agenda is ambitious and demanding, but it has some important challenges too.
To be sure, assessing the impact of research is not a new phenomenon. Impact assessment exercises have been a stable element in the evaluation of research funding programs of many countries and regions in the past. Traditionally these look at the scientific outputs and economic effects of the projects funded.
Yet, a new research impact agenda has emerged during the past 5 years. It is new in at least two dimensions. One is that it puts the focus on impact much earlier in the process, namely, already in the research project proposals – before funding them. Second, it has broaden the areas of impact, well beyond the traditional focus on scientific outputs and economic effects, and into new areas of environmental, societal and innovation impact. Each of these two dimensions are positive and desirable, but have some challenges and trade-offs that need careful consideration.
Under the new impact agenda, funding agencies request that research project proposals submitted for funding must contain an explicit planning of the impact of the research. Hence, designing the future impact of the project results becomes an essential part of research funding applications – and their success in getting the funding. In so doing, the new agenda attempts to nudge researchers into thinking about the possible impacts of their research results well before the research activities have even begun. Researchers are strongly encouraged to integrate, plan ahead and seek to make the most impact possible out of their research results. And to do it before they have any results at all. It is generally positive to engage researchers into proactively thinking about impacts…
But is too much planning killing serendipity?
Scientific research is about creating new knowledge, which normally has a certain degree of serendipity. Planning too strictly ahead of time might result in only measuring and identifying the impact that was expected. The unexpected outputs of research, resulting from serendipity, might remain unexplored and unexploited. In other words, if too strictly designed, the impact requirements in research funding proposals might run counter the unexpected benefits of NEW knowledge production.
The second dimension has to do with the areas of impact. The new impact agenda has expanded from examining impact in terms of scientific outputs and economic effects, towards examining impact in terms of sustainability and environment, societal and innovation-related impacts. This is positive because it acknowledges the transformative power of research in many different areas. And it is good, because it makes explicit the role of research results into the processes socio-technical change.
But, is this broadening useful? And is it able to provide a clear picture of impact?
The broader the impact is studied, the larger the problems of attribution. How can we measure and identify impact of research in a way that assigns that specific impact to that specific research project results? Science is a cumulative endeavor, and impacts are typically the result of combining many different pieces of science produced through time, combined with other non-scientific elements too. The more ambitious policy-makers become in their new impact agenda, the more difficult to get a clear picture of the impact of research.
Photo: The Atlas mountains, Morocco