Research communication under the spotlight

25th November 2014

There are increasing community and media expectations for recipients of taxpayer-funded research to communicate how they deliver social impact

The topic of social impact resulting from university-based research has been gaining momentum lately across mainstream media. We recently wrote about the evolution of purpose and the role of universities, but since then Professor Kevin Galvin has written an article, which was subsequently published in the Australian Financial Review, questioning whether our research, in fact, has made a difference in the real world.

His article argues the need for collection and analysis of high impact data into case studies of “A-rated” projects to showcase examples of projects that have had extreme societal impact. This, Prof Galvin believes, will help refocus the research lens to increase the rate at which our universities deliver major benefits to our society.

While some may argue that all research should not necessarily lead to an economic or social benefit, others (and especially the every day taxpayer) may see their tax dollars as a means of social investment; an investment in the improvement of Australian life and society. So while some research may not lead to social impact, it’s important to consider balance. The fact that universities are nowadays reliant (to some degree) on government support entails moral and contractual obligations to return a benefit to its funders. This begs the question: As taxpayers, are we really getting our money’s worth?

It’s important to remember that government funds do not stem from a bottomless pit of cash; these funds are also not immune from society’s economic struggles. With a world progressively focused on efficacy and efficiency, taxpayers are increasingly demanding proof of impact for dollars spent. The government, in turn, is being pressured to account not only for money spent, but is also required to demonstrate through results why each sector warrants public expenditure. Across the board, this is putting pressures on sectors to compete against one-another and sometimes those with the best communication skills and data to back their stories win the race.

Academia isn’t known to have a strong track record in communicating its achievements to the public and has traditionally been left alone to do what it does best. Academia, in some ways, is seen as having been sheltered from the real world, with metrics and rewards systems in need of an overhaul. Prof Galvin’s article notes that for most Australian researchers “there is little incentive for delivering societal impact, given existing metrics”. The problem lies not only with metrics, but also with reward mechanisms. It’s been previously mentioned that the use of publications and citations as measures of success for both researchers and their institutions is not only misleading, it is leading to the shelving of some great ideas and discoveries that may not be seen as newsworthy, but with great potential social benefits.

It is without doubt that Australian researchers are doing some groundbreaking work, but as this article points out, they will increasingly need to communicate their achievements of social impact to policymakers and ultimately to the public. The opportunity exists for our research community to answer the call and for Australia to promote our science heroes and heroines.

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