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Citation format: The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition

Benedikt Fecher, Nataliia Sokolovska & Marcel Hebing. ‘Teaching Impact is Key to Make Science Socially Relevant’, 2019.

By: Benedikt Fecher, Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society;
Nataliia Sokolovska, Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society;
Marcel Hebing, Impact Distillery & Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society

Funders and policy makers increasingly demand that science has societal impact. This becomes apparent in national debates (e.g., the German Wissenschaftsrat position paper on Knowledge transfer) or supranational initiatives like the European Commission’s strategy “Open innovation, open science, open to the world“. The call for societal relevance of research is motivated by an increased need for scientific expertise in the light of global and multidisciplinary challenges such as climate change, migration, or digitisation, and partly of course as a return-of-investment expectation. Societal impact is en vogue.

A core problem that we see in the movement for relevance is the lack of professional training and a lack of common understanding what constitutes good impact (as in good scientific practice). While researchers have probably learned various ways of citing and numerous strategies for publishing articles (in order to increase scientific impact) already during their bachelor studies, knowledge transfer and societal impact is hardly a concept that a researcher encounters during his or her professional training. How much and about which topic should a scientist twitter? Where does scientific policy advice end and lobbying start? And should a scientist talk about issues that are beyond his or her field of expertise? In short: What makes scientific expertise actually scientific and thus distinguishes it from other forms of advice provided e.g., by private consultancies or civil activists? This question remains largely unanswered.  Consequently, our ways to measure and evaluate societal impact are clumsy and incomplete. Altmetrics, a performance score based on social media share is often seen as a metric for societal relevance — despite the fact that it apparently mistakes relevance for public attention.

The Impact School, which the research program “Knowledge and Society” at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society initiated together with the Leibniz Research Alliance Science 2.0 and the Impact Distillery  addresses this problem.  During the four-day summer school for early stage researchers and participants learn how to translate their findings into practical insights and how to safeguard scientific integrity in transfer. To this extent each day focuses on a particular stakeholder group, such as — the media, business community, or politics — and their specific information needs. During the course of the summer school participants are asked to develop and reflect on their own transfer strategy (using their own body of research). We combine theoretical sessions, hands-on sessions, and Q&As with practitioners that work at the intersection of science and society (e.g., science policy advisors, scientific entrepreneurs, and science journalists).

Of course, during a four-day training participants do not master the somewhat incoherent field of knowledge transfer. But the experience of the recent years — however — has shown us that it certainly helps them to develop an empathy and understanding of scientific information needs related to different target groups, i.e., how they inform themselves about science and for which purposes. It helps them to design effective strategies for knowledge transfer, i.e., which formats they can use and with what limitations they come with. Moreover, it shows them pathways to engage beyond the inner circle of academia. And most of all it helps them to develop an understanding for good — that is effective and scientific — knowledge transfer. Researchers have to understand what the scientific in transfer means and learn to differentiate between activism and scientific policy advice; between factual/objective information and overselling one’s own results in order to gain public attention. On top of all that, they should consider ethical principles for the communication or commercialisation of their research findings. Sometimes knowledge transfer means knowing when to say nothing.

The Impact School will take place September 17th to 20th in Berlin at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. During the 4-days summer school early career researchers will have a chance to learn how approach stakeholders outside the academia, translate their findings into practical insights and how to safeguard scientific integrity in the transfer process. A call for application will be published soon.