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Societal impact equals research in service of society – but what society?

What is the “society” we talk about when we talk about the societal impact of research? What does it entail, what kinds of entities does it consist of, and who does it include?

The discourse on societal impact that I have been immersed in as a research management professional has been more or less centered on business collaboration and commercialization of research results, policymaking, and life-long learning for professional and personal development. But in my interviews at the University of Michigan and MIT I have been struck by the prevalence of the level of community and civil society.

The Detroit River Story Lab is one case in point. Others include, for instance, the Carceral State Project, an interdisciplinary initiative of researchers, writers, and artists from the University of Michigan that addresses issues of incarceration, policing, and immigration detention in collaboration with the impacted communities and advocacy organizations in the state of Michigan. Or the work of the Local Innovation Group at MIT, conducting research and supporting local systems change in communities facing development challenges around the world.

“Community” is of course a very broad term. For the current purposes, let’s just say that it is a group of people that shares a sense of meaningful commonality in terms of geographical location, social identity, or a language – to name only a few examples. When we talk about research impact at the level of communities, it tends to involve attention to imbalances of power and access with an objective of providing solutions to social problems particular to that specific community. Research may impact on communities by producing knowledge towards shaping policies at different levels of government, but research can also serve the development of concrete practices and empowering action at the level of the communities themselves.

Contributing to the flourishing of communities is characteristic of action research that has long been part of a standard toolkit of the humanities and social sciences. But in European science policy, communities seem to be conspicuously absent from the discourse on societal impact.

The Academy of Finland, for example, while recognizing the complexity of the potential effects of research in the society, fails to include impacts at the level of civil society in its application guidelines for societal impact. The guidelines refer to economic prosperity, policymaking, working life skills, and the spiritual growth and education of individuals. What is missing are areas of contribution that the Academy itself reports as typical of the humanities in particular – strengthening citizen participation and civil activity, or protecting cultural diversity and improving cultural interaction and coexistence, or community development itself.

A recent article in the journal Tieteessä tapahtuu (Science Now), a publication promoting public understanding of research and scholarship in Finland, highlights this discrepancy. In the article titled “The university as a servant or a truth seeker?” (Yliopisto palvelijana vai totuuden etsijänä?), Briitta Koskiaho, professor emerita of social policy at the University of Tampere, revisits a project of action research from the turn of the eighties on urban development in Pispala.

For those who are less familiar with Finnish topography, Pispala is a district of Tampere in central Finland that today is a popular tourist destination due to its unique collection of wooden houses scattered on a slope of a steep ridge facing lake Näsijärvi. Historically, however, the area was far from fancy and a home to the industrializing city’s factory and railroad workers. (Incidentally, it was also the place where my mother was born after the second world war.)

The project Koskiaho refers to in her article concerned an analysis of the plans to upgrade Pispala from a working-class area to a more affluent neighborhood. Koskiaho asks the question, whom did her interdisciplinary group of researchers serve in their project – themselves, the people of Pispala, urban developers, or truth? She answers her own question by stressing truth as the group’s primary objective. The researchers set out to understand the ethical, economic, social and cultural issues that concern urban development in old neighborhoods. However, as their project advanced and they talked to policymakers, local residents, landlords and property owners as well as urban developers, they became more and more concerned about the future of Pispala’s working-class community.

In other words, through their truth-seeking work, the researchers spotted a social problem that then became the focus of their project. This, in its turn, lead to architects and engineers exploring the possibilities for renovating the old houses instead of tearing them down and building new ones in their stead. It also led to policymakers looking into supporting the community’s livelihood in Pispala instead of helping them move away. The project clearly had a very immediate impact on the Pispala community at the time. According to Koskiaho, however, city officials were far from happy with this development, so far so that Koskiaho and her colleagues got reprimanded by the rector of the university for not serving the society in the way that was expected of them.

Koskiaho tells the story in the context of arguing that the current European science policy, and individual universities in its wake, only recognize immediate economic and technological usefulness as societal impact. I have to disagree with her in so far as I see that there is a genuine drive towards finding sustainable solutions to our current societal challenges. But what I do agree with is that not seeing community-level impact is detrimental to this goal.

Koskiaho says it herself: Pispala today is what it is – a prosperous neighborhood and tourist attraction – because the research project helped shift focus from new construction to the maintenance and protection of the area’s historical character. Of course, because of this same development Pispala is no longer a working-class community. Nevertheless, it was the foregrounding of the community’s perspective and collaboration with the area’s resident and heritage associations that lead the research project to have the societal impact it did – at the time as well as many decades into the future.

Koskiaho’s second criticism is that business collaboration entails only short-term objectives that are, at least to an extent, in contradiction with the universities’ truth-seeking mission. With this, I don’t necessarily disagree: time runs at a different pace in the academic and the business worlds and both have their own purpose. But again, focusing on impacts at community level can help us see at least a couple of instances where the service function of research in the humanities and social sciences, even in a business context, might not be completely at odds with the quest for the truth.

First, companies are facing more and more pressures from international regulators, governments, and customers, as well as their shareholders and investors towards increased corporate social responsibility.

As the list by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) shows, some of the key social responsibility issues in the corporate world concern topics that are the bread and butter of humanities and social sciences. These include not only labor standards, working conditions and good governance, but also employee and community relations, social equity, gender balance, and human rights – including cultural rights. The gist of it is that it is, in fact, in the companies’ own interest to know the truth about their social footprint and how to manage it to create positive change.

Second, businesses come in all shapes and sizes. The majority of them are not large corporations but small and medium-sized enterprises. Also not all companies are looking for quick quarterly wins so much as long-term economic sustainability. Companies like that may also serve as backbones of local communities and engines of community empowerment.

Here the MIT D-Lab case study on the Letcher County Culture Hub offers an illustrative exemplar. It tells a story of an action research project in collaboration with an economically downtrodden community in the Appalachian Mountains. Bringing together community members from across deep cultural and political divides, the Culture Hub model developed in the project supported a bottom-up identification of common priorities. An important part of the cultural revival was a shift from the community’s earlier dependence on single outside industry – coal – towards an economy of locally owned and managed businesses.

I think the crucial point that Briitta Koskiaho makes in her article is that the humanities and social sciences often reveal uncomfortable truths. Frequently these truths have to do with disadvantages, inequalities and injustices affecting specific communities, cultures, or groups of people. It is precisely this critical stance that is essential to the potential of humanities and social sciences in terms of societal impact. Action research is just one example of the pathways characteristic of the humanities and social sciences to translate the truhts into practice.

Instead of protesting against demands for societal impact of research, what I think we need to do is make more noise about the kind of societal impact that is intrinsic to the humanities and social sciences. Instead of dismissing the idea of societal impact, we need to seek to redefine it. And insist, to boot, that the society that we talk about when we talk about impact include not only the government and the business, nor just the individual level but – crucially – the communities and civil society in between them.

Original photo by Arto Haapanen via Flickr