7 April 2017

Position paper on societal impact of academic research in the knowledge society

Universities should look at societal impact in a new way and adjust policies

Foto Robert Oosterbroek
Photo Robert Oosterbroek

In October 2016, Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation, stated that research impact should be one of three ‘core values’ for Europe’s research funding programmes, next to excellence and openness, and that his hope was to develop a ‘more sophisticated approach’ to impact. The League of European Research Universities (LERU) launched a new paper on why and how societal impact is, has always been and will remain a core task of universities. Prof Wiljan van den Akker (director Centre for the Humanities) and dr Jack Spaapen (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences) are authors of the position paper Productive interactions: societal impact of academic research in the knowledge society. They state that universities should look at societal impact in a new way and adjust their policies accordingly. 


Over the last decade and more, the discussion of universities’ impact on society, and the impact of research in particular, has gained importance. It is, to a varying extent, embedded in policies referring to universities’ contributions to the knowledge society, solving global, societal challenges, building an open and inclusive European Research Area, and more. LERU expects this trend to intensify even more in the near future. 

In this paper, LERU reflects on the consequences of these societal developments on research and research impact, and how and why the concept of impact has changed in recent times. It analyses the current context in which societal impact is discussed at LERU universities and beyond, how this impact is pursued as a high-level strategy at LERU universities, and how the current understanding of impact and its explicit recognition inside and outside of the university has significant consequences for the entire research ecosystem, including universities, researchers, funders, governments, private and public stakeholders and the public at large.

Prof. dr. Wiljan van den Akker. Foto Vincent Mentzel
Prof Wiljan van den Akker. Photo Vincent Mentzel

How to measure impact

The paper also looks into the way impact in measured. It states that traditional mechanisms to measure impact will come under (even) more scrutiny. Two such mechanisms, bibliometrics and peer review (each with their own pros and cons), will need changes to remain fit-for-purpose and meaningful in the research ecosystem. The discussion often focuses on relatively easy to measure publication output and economic benefits like numbers of spin-offs, patents, gross value added, jobs created. It is a lot trickier to answer the thorny question (especially with facts and figures): “What are you universities doing that brings societal benefits?”

In a number of countries, the authors see the emergence of evaluative systems allowing for a wider form of evaluation that takes societal impact into account. Also in the literature, new qualitative and quantitative measurements are being developed, for example regarding the use of social media, or wider forms of peer review. 


The paper includes a selection of examples from LERU universities to show how they have taken on board the impact agenda in their strategies, policies, initiatives and practices. On the basis of the analysis of the paper and the insights received from LERU universities, the authors have formulated the following recommendations for universities and other stakeholders:


  • Universities should fully embrace the societal impact agenda, safe in the knowledge that it is fully compatible with their historical fundamental missions of knowledge creation and transmission.
  • Universities should continuously seek to support and promote societal impact as a dynamic, open and networked process in a culture of sustained engagement and co-production of knowledge.
  • Universities should engage with others across the broad spectrum of the research ecosystem, including governments, research funders, the private sector, civil society and society at large, so as to foster a better understanding of impact, to develop future-oriented policies and implement innovative practices based on the concept of impact described in this paper.
  • Universities should, as a consequence, develop open, explicit and transparent reward systems that include the value of all kinds of impact, reward it and take it into account for individual promotion. They should avoid (inadvertently) creating or following perverse incentive systems.

LERU urges governments, policy makers and funders, at the EU, national and other levels, to:

  • recognise and endorse the view of impact as a dynamic, open and networked process in a culture of sustained engagement and co-production of knowledge.
  • temper their expectations when it comes to the question of predicting the outcome(s) of grant applications, since the production of knowledge is non-linear and full of unpredictabilities.
  • support and incentivise universities in their endeavours to embrace this broad impact agenda.
  • engage with universities in a dialogue to develop sensible impact policies. 
  • translate the ideas and recommendations put forward in this paper into innovative approaches and initiatives.

Debate on Societal Impact

The Centre for Humanities will organise a debate on June 1st 2017. The theme of the evening is Societal Impact. Keynote speaker is Professor David Price (University College London). More information can be found in the agenda. 

About LERU

LERU is a renowned international research and education network of twenty-three big leading research universities that influence the European policy agenda. Prof Bert van der Zwaan (Rector Magnificus) joined LERU's Board of Directors in May 2014 and was elected as Chairman in November 2016.