What does societal impact mean for early-career researchers?

social media

When I hear the phrase societal impact (which is often these days!), I usually connect it to the use of social media – mostly Twitter and Facebook. Societal impact, referring to the many ways of transferring research results from the university context to the various needs of society, is currently a hot topic within academia. It’s also related to the expanding functions of universities, and to the increasing expectations that stem from society: Universities are expected to prove their relevance for society and to increase their impact in it. Moreover, the “wicked problems”, such as environmental issues, need solutions from universities now more than ever before.

We, as researchers, should be in a continuous dialogue with the society outside academia and have regular reality checks. For us early-career researchers, in particular, spreading our research results makes our research more visible and, in this way, supports our career progression in academia. In addition, the transdisciplinary collaboration provides us with opportunities to widen our networks within and outside universities, which in turn widen our thinking and perspectives in our work. It also might provide us with new opportunities for obtaining research funding, and even with new career prospects.

How can we impact?

Social media (or media activity in general), the widening networks outside universities, and other collaboration with a variety of stakeholders are important in terms of societal impact. A significant way to open up our research to the world is open science. However, the current deadlock in the negotiations between big publishers and universities regarding open access publishing and journal costs isn’t exactly favourable to this idea (see e.g. this Science article, and this piece of news published by the library of my own university).

Open science and social media, however, are only some of the ways to spread our research results, although important. A while ago I was having coffee with a colleague who was rather anxious about societal impact as a whole. She explained that, rather than a normal part of a researcher’s work, for her it was something she had to do outside her working hours, as the normal working hours were already dedicated to multiple different projects AND her dissertation. Her regular work tasks, however, included collaboration with stakeholders outside the university, such as teachers and traditional news media.

In this moment I realised that, in fact, my colleague impacts the-world-outside-academia in her work all the time – unlike myself, who usually writes alone at home or in my office, occasionally attending some meetings, seminars, or conferences, and whose only way to currently have any impact on anything is to share my (or other people’s) work or my opinions on social media, and to write popularised publications. What I think is important, however, is that instead of feeling anxious about the external requirements to impact more, we should be aware of all the existing possibilities in our current work, and acknowledge all those things we already do to disseminate our research results (like teaching, which is much too undervalued regarding societal impact).

Combining societal impact, work, and freetime

Afterwards I also had another realisation: What we feel as natural behaviour to us on social media is in the end very personal: While some people might use social media as a personal tool to communicate with close friends, they never share anything work-related there. By contrast, some academics might only disseminate work-related content on their social media accounts. Then there’s the “middle-group”, who is able to smoothly combine their personal and work lives by finding ways to communicate to a large, international network and to national actors while sharing personal content only with a very limited number of people. This actually applies also to other kind of networking as well; some might feel it more natural behaviour for them than others do.

Academic work comprises different work tasks, done in different roles in different networks: traditional academic (research and/or teaching), administrative, managerial, networking, collaborating outside the university, and entrepreneurial tasks: marketing the research results, applying funding and so on. With this growing number of tasks, the external expectations to increase our societal impact might feel unfair and stressful. In addition, in every disciplinary field the range of possibilities to have societal impact varies. The key aspect here is prioritising your own work and finding your own ways of impact.

To sum up, this is what you can do to maximise your chances of impact:

  1. Become aware of all the societally relevant aspects which already exist in our work (that is, in teaching, research, media, networks etc.).
  2. Familiarise yourself with the ways of impact that you haven’t been familiar with before. To do this, there are many options to choose from: Go to Twitter, write a popularised article, look for open access journals, or find new networks from different disciplinary backgrounds, or even outside the university, if possible.
  3. Be the source of change! Challenge your colleagues to think about the research and teaching that you do from a new perspective: What are the “burning issues” of your field? Could you address your work in a way that these issues would be covered more comprehensively? Could you perhaps develop new ways of teaching or new ways of thinking within your research field?

In academic work, we could use a little bit of sociological imagination to find new ways to collaborate and impact more in our society. This sometimes means stretching our boundaries a bit, and going to the unfamiliar areas beyond our comfort zone. Commonly taking the risk is worth it – new possibilities and ideas are just around the corner.

Taru Siekkinen has just finalised her doctoral thesis related to changing academic profession, work, and careers. She is working as a project researcher in a research team Higher Education Studies (HIEST), in the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä. Her current project is called “Exiting Academics in Networked Knowledge Societies”, where the aim is to study the knowledge transfer trough people from universities to other sectors of societies. You can follow her on Twitter.

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