If we were today to climb into the time machine that H.G. Wells imagined, we could, for example, travel back to the 19th century to witness the dawn of modern science. In those days, the boundaries between science and society were not as clean-cut as they are now, and scientific research was greatly influenced by public interests and needs.
That all changed in the 20th century. Science cast off the chains of excessive social interference, so much so that society became merely a source of resources and a passive recipient of scientific discoveries, with the scientific community controlling the directions research took. That rift resulted in mutual indifference between society and science, an attitude often linked with a feeling of frustration arising from a lack of understanding of one another.
Fortunately, we realized some years ago that the two spheres need to interact and feed off each other in order to grow. With a contemporary perspective on science, the goal is for that reconciliation to lead to social transformation. In other words, applying the results of research should benefit people beyond the scientific arena, directly so in areas such as the economy, culture, politics and public services, health, the environment, and quality of life. That is what is known as the social impact of science.
In the words of CREAF’s impact officer, Anabel Sánchez: “Social impact puts the focus back on the social contribution of research, with a view to scientific excellence helping to tackle society’s global challenges and to the public’s involvement in research generating social changes.”
Social impact puts the focus back on the social contribution of research, with a view to scientific excellence helping to tackle society’s global challenges and to the public’s involvement in research generating social changes.ANABEL SÁNCHEZ, CREAF’s impact officer
Funding for research projects has increased recently and funding bodies like the European Commission seek a return on their investment. They therefore ask that some part of research provide direct, practical responses to social challenges such as adaptation to climate change, soil restoration and urban transformation.
How CREAF generates impact
The entire world is facing challenges that threaten the wellbeing of humankind. Research on ecology and the environment is key to overcoming those social challenges and changing society’s relationship with nature. Thus, through its social impact strategy, CREAF is looking to ensure that part of its research provides direct benefits for society: ecosystem improvement, guidance for decision-making regarding land management, scientific education for the public, etc. To that end, the Centre helps its research staff align their projects with Catalan, Spanish and international frameworks for innovation and evaluation (e.g. the evaluation criteria of Horizon Europe, Catalonia’s CERCA Institute, Spain’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, etc.).
If impact is to be achieved, it is vital that, from the outset of their projects, researchers bear in mind the non-academic contexts to which their research is relevant, the parties liable to benefit from or be interested in it, and the channels, materials and methodologies potentially useful for reaching them, including appropriate language to facilitate communication and use. CREAF’s initiatives notably include citizen science schemes with an educational impact, such as the RitmeNatura citizen science observatory, the uBMS and mBMS urban butterfly monitoring schemes, the Alerta Forestal citizen science platform for forest health monitoring, the Mosquito Alert and EXOCAT projects, and the iNaturalist platform for gathering data on biodiversity.
Taking things a step further, we can use the evidence provided by indicators to study what happens after the transfer of essential knowledge (for use in public policies and decision-making related to land management, for instance) and determine whether we have helped generate positive changes. An example of a case in which such an approach has been taken is the BeWater project, a source of knowledge related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, and life on land, which has made a practical contribution to improving local management and planning for climate change.
An impact network
CREAF fosters the dissemination of such knowledge as a member of Net4Impact, the first interdisciplinary network on the social impact of research in Spain.With representatives of sciences such as ecology, the humanities, mathematics, engineering and education, among other disciplines, Net4Impact is an innovative project that helps boost the social impact of Spanish research by:
- Promoting the exchange of information among its members.
- Analysing the social impact of the projects of its members and others conducted in connected areas of knowledge.
- Studying tools for compiling data on the social impact of research (e.g. Researchfish, Impactstory, SIOR, etc.). The data from such repositories are sources of good practices and success stories that can inspire researchers and public authorities, and which the former can use to strengthen the case for funding for new projects or to seek out partners.
- Publishing articles in scientific journals renowned in their respective fields.
- Providing information and training through events and social media.
The network’s informative contributions notably include a report called “El impacto social de la investigación: qué es y cómo visibilizarlo”, which explains, with examples, what social impact is and the pathways and strategies to follow to achieve it.
Additionally, Net4Impact has organized a series of thematic webinars, one for each of the areas of knowledge of its members. In one of them, a session entitled “The social impact of research on ecology and the environment” and moderated by Anabel Sánchez, the researcher Annelies Broekman presented Water and Global Change, a CREAF research group that studies how water management can reduce societies’ vulnerability to the global change currently taking place.
The last in the series of webinars took place on 3 June. Under the title “Social impact of scientific research”, it was be moderated by Anabel Sánchez, who also explained the BeWater project as a model to follow.
If we were to climb back into the time machine, we could travel to the future to see what social changes our research has generated. Will we have altered society’s scientific culture? Will something unexpected and surprising have happened? We will have to wait a while to find out!