Blog post

Societal impact or scientific relevance?

Published on
February 28, 2019
Societal impact in academia corresponds to the outcomes and consequences of research and education for different stakeholders. This could be a single experience, a case study with a community and NGO, or a long-term partnership with an renowned and influential international organization.
For a long time, the main concern of researchers has been executing research that has a scientific relevance. However, the political, ethical, cultural and economic implications of the production and dissemination of knowledge has raised concerns about the societal relevance of research.

This makes us wonder: if science is supposed to be neutral, should we assume that it does advocate and contribute to benefit specific societal groups? Knowledge and practices can be affected by science and can change people’s lives. Moreover, academia and stakeholders such as governments, business and international organizations sponsoring science often prioritize specific interests and address certain sectors of society. This may have both intended and unintended consequences. For instance, we know that research funding from corporations and institutions that support agribusiness is often linked with ‘monocultural’ agricultural practices; whereas less money is invested in the ‘sdiverse cultural’ practices of indigenous people and local communities that are so important for environmental conservation and social justice.

Should we be more accountable for the impacts of our research? We must reflect if our discourses on conservation and social justice match our initiatives and extend our support to unprivileged social groups. I would say that this is still lacking in our academic “culture of doings”. We still have little common understanding of what societal “impact” means and little accountability for our research. In Brazil for example, scientists that are engaged with society have internalized concern for social impact. We have learned that this requires having and implementing codes of ethics and understanding the implications of participatory methods where we share and co-produce worldviews, knowledge and practices with people. In Brazil we teach students from Bachelor degree onwards about this in courses, events and internships. Students learn the reality of stakeholders which enables them to better conduct research with an ethical and political awareness of their roles as scientists and the consequences their research can have for people’s realities. One of these experiences for instance has been adopted by WUR in the Farmers Internship Experience summer course, organized by Boerengroep association and Rural Sociology. Reflecting on what we have learned in Brazil, here are some suggestions of how we in Wageningen can think about the societal impact of our research:

1) Be aware of the implications of the way that we teach, deal with, and evaluate students and that different ways of thinking should be embraced rather than fit into one frame of reference ;
2) Identify which stakeholders we will engage with and how they will be addressed and affected by our research;
3) Agree with research participants on research intentions, finalities and expectations of return for them. This means do not simply extract information from people, but think together of contributions to be delivered for participants according with both needs of the context and research scope – i.e. publications in non-technical language that register practices, values, and knowledge studied; reports; maps; and dialogues around issues of concern for participants.
4) Take account of the often short-term nature of research and forge partnerships with other researchers, NGOs and other stakeholders who can use the knowledge we generate as well as advance and apply it to foster more lasting and substantial contributions;
Each place has a different culture of doings that we at FNP should consider to shape our own approach to contributing to societal impact. While engaging with global policies, students and actors, we should remain humble and think of how we can make our research contributions meaningful not only for the WUR committee and global interests, but for the countries and participants of our research.

Inspiring references on this topic:
Albuquerque U. P., R. F. P. Lucena, and E. M. F. Lins Neto (eds.). 2014. Methods and Techniques in Ethnobiology and Ethnoecology. New York: Springer Protocols Handbooks, 476p.

Ayaviri Matuk, F., Behagel, J., Gonçalves Reynaud Schaefer, C. E., Duque-Brasil, R., & Turnhout, E. (2019). Deciphering landscapes through the lenses of locals: The “Territorial Social-Ecological Networks” Framework applied to a Brazilian maroon case. Geoforum, 100, 101-115. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.02.005
Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30 ed). New York :Continuum, 192p.

Kincheloe, J. L. 2008. Critical Pedagogy and the Knowledge Wars of the Twenty-First Century. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 1(1):1-21
Klenk, N., A. Fiume, K. Meehan, and C. Gibbes. 2017. Local knowledge in climate adaptation research: moving knowledge frameworks from extraction to co-production. WIREs Climate Change 8(e475):1-15.

Rist, S., and F. Dahdouh-Guebas. 2006. Ethnosciences: a step towards the integration of scientific and indigenous forms of knowledge in the management of natural resources for the future. Environmental Devevelopment and Sustainability 8:467-493.

Silithoe, B. (2002). Where the power lies: multiple stakeholder politics over natural resources: a participatory methods guide. CIFOR.
Wadsworth, Y. (1998). What is participatory action research. Action research international 2: 1-18.