Taking an ‘outside-in' approach to impact assessment made sense to two directorates at the European Commission's Research DG. The directorate for social sciences and humanities, and its environment counterpart have published a joint review of the social and environmental impacts of European research. Such cross-fertilisation – of research disciplines but also research administrations – is seen as critical to achieving major goals like the Lisbon Strategy and sustainable growth and employment.
“For many years, the relationship between science and policy has become closer,” notes the foreword to the new European Commission report ‘Assessing the social and environmental impacts of European research', produced jointly by the directorate for ‘social sciences and humanities: foresight' and the ‘environment' directorate of the Research DG.
|EU project Ecotarget is studying how to keep Europe strong in paper production, but at the same time meet demands for sustainable growth.|
© Ecotarget, c/- AthenaWeb
“The economic, social and environmental benefits are the legitimate return for citizens on the significant investment in RTD [research and technological development],” the document goes on. With increased prominence, research policy is facing more public scrutiny. Research policy-makers' answer to this is to look closely at the results of RTD funding – through examples of best practices and projects generating visible social and/or environmental returns – and to examine what changes need to be put in place to make it better still.
This ‘impact assessment' is not unique to research policy. Since 2003, all major Commission policy proposals have been subject to reviews such as this, where the ‘economic', ‘social' and ‘environmental' impacts – the so-called three ‘sustainability pillars' – are taken into consideration. The current review hopes to “provide valuable support to the scientific and political debate on the ability of European research to contribute to the realisation of the Lisbon Strategy”, building a knowledge fortress in Europe capable of sustaining economic growth, employment and social cohesion.
The report is divided into three main parts: the first covers the social impacts of RTD and lessons learned from the Framework Programmes for research; the second tackles the same territory but focuses on the environment; and the third part is the conclusions.
The more than 90-page report offers success stories and benchmarks across a wide range of topics: from human rights and capital, employment, culture, governance and security, to socio-economic cohesion, protection and services. It also touches on the social impact of research as it relates to public health and safety, liveable communities, international co-operation, consumer interests and SMEs.
In the environment section, the review of achievements covers successful research into water and air pollution and quality, soil and land use, climate change, and environmental risks. It also tackles such topics as noise, biodiversity, resource use and waste management, human health and safety, as well as natural and cultural heritage.
Until this review was undertaken, the socio-environmental impacts of research was a “rather unexplored terrain”, according to the report. The main architect of the study, Andrea Ricci of ISIS, an Italian institute for systems integration, and the Commission acknowledge that the reasons for this could be the difficulty in quantifying the social and environmental pillars of the sustainability trio, and the lack of a systematic approach to impact assessment in the past.
“To cope with these difficulties,” the report continues, “and contribute to establishing a better balance between economic performance, on the one hand, and social and environmental achievements, on the other, future RTD strategies should [put] more explicit emphasis [on] social and environmental objectives.”