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Lighting Up the Pathway to Impact for Social Sciences and Humanities


 To address the challenge of increasing the uptake of SSH R&D results, META Group is testing a pilot action with the University of Macerata.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) undoubtedly represented the strongest and most successful answer to the 20th century challenges, enabling effective response in all crucial sectors for the progress of our societies and economies.

But having a broader interdisciplinary approach has become a pivot of the strategies and policies all over the world, and it seems to be the common ground for facing the most urgent and pressing crisis of our time, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the military conflict in Ukraine.

In the last 25 years, G20 countries increased their gross domestic spending on R&D, showing how policymakers are setting this trend as one of the growth pillars. Nevertheless, two main challenges remain to be tackled:

  1. How R&D investments can drive growth?
  2. Should R&D funds focus only on technical domains, or a more comprehensive approach is needed?

To be effective, the funds invested in R&D have to produce research results that should be used or reach the market. This is not always the case. There is a struggle to transform results into benefits and maximizing the scientific, societal, economic, and technological value of public funding.

To succeed in generating value from research, three steps must be followed:

  1. Generation of knowledge
  2. Transfer of knowledge into use
  3. Promote use to generate impact

What has happened so far in Europe was the massive financing of the first step without properly supporting step 2 and 3, which are equally crucial. The European Commission with the Framework Programme "Horizon Europe" will give more importance to defining a clear and feasible impact pathway and focus on measures to maximise impact. These activities will not be a "nice to have" any longer but a "must have" as beneficiaries will have a specific clause in the research contract to run Exploitation, Dissemination and Communication activities.

R&D results beyond the technical knowledge

Even if more efforts will be made to foster impact from research results, many of the most difficult problems we face as a society, including climate change, racial injustice and cyberattacks, are shaped by human behavior and can be tackled through public policy. That's why solutions often require more than technical knowledge. Whether social, economic, environmental, or health-related, solving such challenges calls for critical thinking, historical understanding, cultural literacy, and creativity. It requires the skills, competencies and the understanding spreading from Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).

SSH were part of the Horizon 2020 funding programme even if the related impact of this sector has been intangible. With social sciences included in almost 25% of interdisciplinary projects, and humanities in just 10% of Horizon 2020 projects, the integration of the SSH in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research has been moving at a slow pace.

The Horizon 2020 programme took a two-pronged approach to SSH: a dedicated societal challenge that focused mainly on SSH disciplines and the cross-cutting principle of SSH integration across the whole programme. Effective SSH integration was considered a key determinant of sustainable societal impact.

To accelerate this trend, the European Commission wants to create with Horizon Europe (HE) a strong interaction between STEM and SSH fields. The integration of SSH across Horizon Europe responds to the programme imperative of addressing SSH as a key cross-cutting issue. Building on the experience from Horizon 2020, SSH is present across all clusters under the new programme, including specific and dedicated activities such as missions and partnerships.

SSH as an innovation enabler beyond the social impact

A study conducted by King's College London and Digital Science underlines that the research underpinning societal impact is multidisciplinary and the social benefit arising from research is multi-impactful. The study identified over 3.700 unique pathways to impact after analyzing the relationship between 149 fields of research, 36 research program categories and 60 impact topics.

Horizon Europe will tackle the main European society challenges in the next seven years through:

  • generating an interdisciplinary research approach with the interaction of STEM and SSH
  • supporting research projects in exploiting the results generated to create an impact beyond the social impact

Accordingly, it is crucial to use research results as the base for generating impact and to work consistently on maximising it. From this perspective, the exploitation outputs will be instrumental to Dissemination and Communication activities that inform potential adopters and raise the awareness of the general public. Following this pathway means adopting a demand-led approach to address the needs of specific target groups. The spotlight is on the selection of Key Exploitable Results (KERs) and identifying the necessary steps to ensure their use after the end of the research project. This methodology does not depend on the "type" of result. This problem-oriented approach can be applied to SSH research results, where the impact creation has rarely been considered as crucial.

Understanding use of R&D results in SSH

Exploiting R&D results is a challenging process for researchers as they usually use a "solution-driven" approach. This issue is more prominent when we consider R&D results from SSH where the outcomes are less tangible than in STEM.

To better understand this process, META Group has implemented a survey at the University of Macerata.  It involved individuals involved in R&D: researchers, professors, PhD students, research fellows and administrative staff. Here are some of the findings.

Read more about the survey results here.

Based on the results of this investigation, a pilot project has been created and implemented. "Research impact on SSH" was funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research to increase the impact of the University of Macerata's Third Mission.

Case study: University of Macerata

"Research impact on SSH" is a project funded in 2021 by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research to increase the impact of the University of Macerata's Third Mission.

Over the years, the University implemented different actions to promote the Third Mission in a typical SSH context. The activities were directed both within the University, having as reference professors, the technical-administrative staff, researchers in training as doctoral students, fellows, and scholarship holders, as well as students, and externally, i.e., addressed to the productive fabric and the local community.

Today, innovation is driving exponential changes in every sphere of society, because it occurs much more rapidly than people's responsiveness and resilience. This implies the need to strengthen the ability to respond to the new challenges introduced by innovation with activities that generate impact, starting from SSH research results.

With this project, the University of Macerata will pursue a positioning strategy by strengthening the ability to generate impact out of the research activity carried out in the SSH, in line with the European policy for the seven-year period 2021-2027.

The project addresses two relevant issues:

  1. The lack of skills and awareness of SSH researchers and universities support and ILO staff around the use of research results.
  2. The low contribution of SSH to impact on societal challenges.

One dimension of the project is focused on a set of coaching activities to increase the effectiveness of the support provided by the Third Mission office. In particular for those services related to exploitation, dissemination and communication of research results. Th second dimension is focused on increasing researchers' awareness around exploitation, dissemination, and communication.

While designing and implementing the pilot project at the University of Macerata, the META Group experts identified a set of activities that can be a starting point for any research organization aiming at maximising impact:

  1. Ex-ante analysis
  2. Promotion of the project and involvement of final beneficiaries
  3. Coaching for the ILO and support staff
  4. Coaching of selected research teams
  5. Project's results sharing

Read more about the activities implemented as part of the pilot project here.

It has become increasingly evident that the generation of a valuable wider impact is unlikely unless moving towards a multi-dimensional conception (social, scientific, environmental, economic, etc.). To make it possible, there is an opportunity arising from the next generation of researchers and from the new EU-funded research programmes which have overcome the curiosity-driven perspective for the pressing demand for an effective impact creation.

As a future area for investigation and study, it will be important to analyse if the paradigm based on the mix of SSH with STEM-deriving methodologies is actually capable to provide effective answers.