Scientists’ Response to Societal Impact Policies: A Policy Paradox

Stefan P. L. de Jong, S.P.L., Smit, J. and van Drooge (2016). Scientists’ response to societal impact policies: A policy paradox. Science & Public Policy, 43(1), 102-114.


Many countries have amended legislation and introduced policies to stimulate universities to transfer their knowledge to society. The effects of these policies on scientists are relatively unexplored. We employ principal–agent theory to increase our understanding of the relationship between impact policies and scientific practice. Our methodology includes the analysis of policy documents and of data gathered in focus groups. We conclude that there is a gap between policy on the one hand and how scientists perceive it on the other. Policy documents put forward a broad notion of impact, but scientists perceive them as focusing too narrowly on commercial impacts. Scientists are further puzzled by how societal impact is evaluated and organised, and their perceptions frame their behaviour. Our policy recommendations focus on improving the interaction between intermediaries, such as universities and research councils, and scientists so as to include the latter’s perspective in policy-making.

This article deals with the impacts of university research beyond the academy, the policy basis that establishes impact as a feature of university research and scientists’ attitudes to these imperatives. Bottom line: there is a gap between what policy demands and what scientists understand to be their opportunities/responsibilities. Scientists don’t understand what “counts” as valorization (see below), don’t know how to craft valorization strategies in grant applications, think that there is a hierarchy of valorization that privileges collaborations with industry (they’re probably right) and are concerned that this is yet one more thing being thrust upon their already busy schedules. No surprises there.

What this article seeks to contribute is: 1) the role of the university as an intermediary; 2) the term valorization and 3) principal-agent theory as the theoretical underpinnings of the

Let’s work backwards

3) Principal-agent theory: a principal and an agent exchange resources. In the case of science, government (the principal) has financial resources but lacks the skills to develop new knowledge, while scientists (the agents) have the skills but lack the financial resources. In exchange for financial resources from government, science develops new knowledge

This sounds like the old “two communities” (see Caplan, 1979) approach where we hypothesized that researchers and policy makers inhabited two separate communities. We now know that research and policy makers don’t live in two separate communities but share spaces where they exchange knowledge and co-produce new knowledge. Similarly, the relationship between researcher and sponsor is not so black and white where one has the money and the other has the expertise. Academic institutions invest a lot of money in the researcher including his/her salary and research infrastructure/facilities. The researcher often collaborates with a government scientist or policy analyst – a specialist in his/her field. Outside of research funds provided by a granting council, the majority of government sponsored research contracts are contribution agreements where each party is investing or at least acknowledging the investment of resources in the collaboration. The agent and the principal still exchange value but it is more collaborative and less of a binary transactional a process.

2) Valorization? What does this mean outside of Europe and Quebec (and even in Quebec it is associated with commercialization and not the notion of broader impacts)? The paper traces the evolution of the term in Europe as follows:

  • “The notion of ‘valorisation’ was introduced to emphasise the importance of universities collaborating with private organisations in order to close the ‘knowledge gap’. One year later, in a letter to the boards of the universities, the Ministry broadened the meaning of valorisation to include societal impact and dissemination in addition to economic impact.”
  • “The process of creating value from knowledge by making knowledge suitable and/or available for economic and/or societal use and translating that knowledge into competitive products, services, processes and entrepreneurial activity.”
  • “A process that promotes the use of academic knowledge outside the academic domain and/or by other scientific fields. The process generally demands interaction between researchers and intended knowledge users, and this contact may appear in all phases of research: from developing research questions to disseminating results.”

These are all great definitions of a term we do not use in English Canada or in the US. Valorization has now made it into both the research grant application and in the assessment of research institutions in Europe. The Standard Evaluation Protocol “is used to guide the mandatory six-yearly assessment of each research institute…Over the years, societal impact has gained importance under the label ‘relevance’. According to the 2009 protocol, relevance:. . . covers the social, economic and cultural relevance of the research. The committee is asked to consider one or more of the aspects ‘societal quality’, ‘societal impact’ and ‘valorisation’.”

1) The university as an intermediary:  It has been suggested that university departments can act as a mediator between researchers and government’s priorities and are “able to broker between research practice and research policy because – despite their managerial function – they are close to researchers.” This is incorporated by reference and the authors find that this intermediary role has not been fulfilled by departments. Again, no surprise here. Academic departments (at least in Canada) tend to be administrative units within the university and don’t have capacity or skills or mandate to act as intermediaries between researchers and government. As opposed to the role of departments the authors make a brief mention of the role of support staff as intermediaries. “Finally, the support staff members of the Research Council and universities seemed to be more informed about policies and seemed to hold more developed views on valorisation than the academics.” Leiden where the principal author Stefan de Jong is a Knowledge Broker in the Humanities and ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche, Canada’s knowledge mobilization network, are examples of universities investing in support staff for valorization activities. As the authors state, “It could be hypothesised that support staff members function as brokers between valorisation policies and academics.” However the authors do what all researchers do and call for more research on the subject.

And finally, here’s a very cool thing. “In the S-PA group, one participant explained he is employed in an ‘innovation track’. His job appraisals are based not on scientific achievement but on innovation achievement.” Whaaaat? A researcher with an academic appointment in an innovation track, not a scientific achievement track??? And another researcher is described to have a dual role of researcher and outreach employee. This role could provide the needed combination of research and valorization which, when supported by professional staff and partnered with a valorization organization (industry, government, community), could form the trifecta of research valorization.

Questions for brokers

  1. Discuss the term valorization – what are the pros and cons of using this term that is commonly understood in Europe and in Quebec?
  2. More on valorization: why do/should we do this? Is it a function of institutional assessments (i.e. Research Excellence Framework in the UK) or is it a function of the grant application (ubiquitous) or is it just the right thing to do?
  3. What are the benefits of a trifecta? Why can’t we have a single research/valorization function?

ResearchImpact is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.


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