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Social Sciences and Humanities Impact

Interview with Marta Soler-Gallart, coordinator of Impact-EV

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Marta Soler-Gallart
One of the EU funded project, Impact-EV's main objectives is to develop a permanent system of selection, monitoring, evaluation and comparison of the impact and outcomes from European SSH research. Analysing, communicating and improving social impact from research is one of the most pressing demands to all scientific fields.

 

Marta, you have been in the coordination of the IMPACT-EV project funded under FP7 in the SSH programme: why is it more important to think about and collect information about the impact of SSH nowadays than say 20 years ago?

Science in general has always been oriented to the advancement of knowledge for the improvement of the human kind and its living conditions. Lately however, citizens’ growing push for transparency and accountability in all dimensions of the public sphere, have also pushed the system of science to show how research is leading to these social improvements. That is why it is more important today to collect information about social impact from research.

SSH are not outside of this general trend. However, the impact of SSH has been more questioned lately than the impact of other sciences. There are more criticisms against SSH for being socially inefficient, ideologically biased and living in an ivory tower. That is why, today more than ever, it is important that the SSH provide evidence about social benefits that are already resulting from their works. Looking for ways to gather such evidence, the SSH have the opportunity to demonstrate their important value for our present and future.

By definition impacts often occur after a very long time after the end of research. What can be done to collect or at least better evaluate this long term impact systematically?

In the same way that a medical finding is first tried on a few people and it may take several years before we can see a larger part of the population benefit from that finding, social improvements from SSH research can be gathered and evaluated at a small scale first. Probably, in the long run, they may scale up through social policy.

Having said that, with the development of more elaborate systems of data management, there are new ways of collecting the diverse impacts of SSH research, similar to the immediate and longer-term impacts already available in publication metrics. The repository SIOR is actually a way of gathering both small-scale immediate impacts as well as impacts resulting from research trajectories.

Soon researchers will be able to include in their profiles the social impacts resulting from different research projects they have been involved. In this way, a researcher dedicated, for instance, to the study of poverty, will be able to show with trusted evidence how he/she has contributed, after many years, to reducing poverty somewhere.

In IMPACT EV, you have created the SIOR initiative recently publicised by the journal Nature. What is the scope and the potential of SIOR for collecting information on the impact of science?

SIOR (Social Impact Open Repository) is the first open access worldwide registry on social impact from scientific research. This repository displays, shares and stores evidence of social improvements resulting from the implementation of research findings. After registering in the system, researchers can describe their projects impacts and upload or link the evidence to those impacts. This is peer-reviewed before being publicly available. In this way, SIOR provides trustable information about social impact from projects that can be easily used for evaluation exercises.

SIOR therefore contributes to the transparency of scientific work, allowing policy makers and citizens to find research with relevant contributions in the areas of their concern. The projects one can find in SIOR are also becoming useful tools for researchers, inspiring them on how to improve the impact of their current and future studies.

The SSH research programme of the Commission has also asked you to create a “permanent platform of impact evaluation of SSH”. Why and how should such a “platform” look like?

We are working to create a platform of impact evaluation of all sciences, including SSH. Why? Because today, the need for evaluating the social impact of research, of universities, etc., is hotly debated, and therefore, it is important to connect the efforts done so far in different parts of the world, to create together the evaluation systems and criteria. How? Such a platform should be, first, participatory, with a bi-annual Conference where all the people who are already achieving and evaluating impact can contribute; second, open access, through an online portal that makes visible the latest advances; third, co-creative, promoting collaboration between researchers or agencies; and fourth, oriented to excellence, associated to the repository or repositories which identify the research achieving greater excellence in terms of social and political impact.

Can you tell us two striking examples of EU funded research, first one with a great impact, and then a second one with unfortunately little or no impact? Any short and clear lesson from these two examples?

Several projects have achieved significant impacts. For instance, the DESAFIO project (FP7) contributed to reduce structural inequality in access to essential water and sanitation services. More in concrete, it helped the transfer of knowledge to the communities in order to allow them to maintain and run wastewater and water supply systems themselves. A key feature we can learn from the DESAFIO project is that, from the very beginning, the project was oriented to empowering communities to self-administrate the water management, with a clear goal to identify best ways of improving peoples’ living conditions.

There are other projects that provide a good diagnosis of European social problems or make good contributions to knowledge about humanity, but lack the orientation towards the actions that overcome those problems or the social and cultural growth of citizens when using this knowledge. The lesson therefore is that thinking the impact should be an essential part of the research design in SSH rather than an add-on we try to fix at the end of a research project.

 

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