What does it yield?

A university makes an impact one way or another, by training tomorrow’s thinkers and administrators. But how do you maintain a good balance between unpredictability and creativity on the one hand, and campaign and policy advice on the other? ‘Ensure that universities remain a playground for science, but also invest in valorisation.’

Text: Malou van Hintum, Illustration: Van Santen & Bolleurs

‘A researcher by definition has an impact,’ says Davide Iannuzzi, Professor of Experimental Physics and, since this year, Chief Impact Officer at VU Amsterdam. ‘Research lifts humanity to a higher level, even if no application is found for it. Universities always have an impact on humanity with their research. We train the new generation of thinkers, policy makers and administrators. Researchers who say “I make an impact because I teach” are totally correct.’

Impact is actually a broad concept, says Iannuzzi. ‘As Chief Impact Officer, I am involved with one of the processes that creates impact: valorisation. But valorisation is not a popular term, any more than “third mission” or “knowledge transfer”. So today it is called impact.’ A possible explanation for this is that valorisation is associated with financial gain and start-ups, Iannuzzi believes, or is seen as only relevant for the hard sciences. ‘Valorisation used to fall under the Technology Transfer Office. But its scope is far wider.’ Today, valorisation is supported by Knowledge Transfer Offices, reflecting the fact that the term can just as easily involve explaining the ethical implications of new technologies, new guidelines or organising awareness-raising campaigns.

Windows wide open

‘You have an impact if you are able to answer questions from society,’ says Andrea Evers, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Leiden. Together with seven other professors, in March of this year she wrote the report Wetenschap met de ramen wijd open. Tien lessen voor wie impact wil maken. [Science with the windows wide open. Ten lessons for anyone wanting to make an impact.] The report, with the hashtag #MAAKIMPACT on the cover, focuses on the social sciences and humanities. According to the report, researchers in these domains must strive to produce science with demonstrable significance by contributing to societal practices, political processes, the quality of public institutions and the functioning of people.


'There is growing public demand for scientific underpinning of policy,' says Evers. ‘Mental welfare, socio-economic issues, waiting lists in youth care and the reception of refugees and asylum-seekers all involve major societal challenges. They can be addressed with interdisciplinary research, together with municipalities, provinces and ministries and with professionals in the education and health care sectors and policy makers.' But it is not easy. The government immediately calls for applications and thinks in the short term. ‘And that’s not how you solve major problems,’ says Evers. ‘Preventing health problems and changing lifestyles, for example, are complex challenges and require patience. They call for interdisciplinary hubs with a suitable infrastructure and mutual knowledge of the language, culture and research methods of the various groups involved. That takes time and effort.’ Some researchers also prefer to do fundamental research. Fine, says the #MAAKIMPACT report: fundamental research is the source of impact and scientists are free to disregard impact if questions about it are irrelevant for their research or simply come too soon.

Researchers who say “I have impact because I teach” are totally correct

Davide Ianuzzi, Chief Impact Officer, VU

Free space threatened

Ben Feringa, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Groningen, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016 for his research into molecular nanomachines, interprets the question of how to make an impact as meaning: what does your research yield? ‘Since that's the issue when you are looking for funding. In all of those programmes that are constantly being established you have to say in advance what direction your research will take and sometimes even almost have to know in advance what the outcome will be.’ While it is just as important that the universities remain a playground for science, he says. ‘Scientists must be given the room and freedom they need to carry out fundamental research, so that they can expand the frontiers of our existing knowledge and capabilities and could in time deliver the desired impact. We need daring, creative ideas, new insights, unpredictability, unexpected discoveries. The balance between unfettered research and programmatic or applied research has been lost. The free space is threatened and NWO plays an important role in that with the requirements it imposes for the funding of research programmes.'

No idea

It can take decades to have an impact, says Feringa. ‘The basis for the smartphone was laid in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the discovery of the transistor and liquid crystal displays. The research was highly creative, but the scientists had no idea that it would ultimately lead to the smartphone. And what an impact that is having! They changed our whole world.' In the 1980s, John Goodenough and two colleagues devised the principle of the lithium battery, for which they won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019. ‘Without the lithium battery, we would not have electric cars, e-bikes or smartphones today. In fact, anything that is battery-powered. And the Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó already discovered the principle of mRNA in the 1980s, which, almost 40 years later, enabled the pharmaceutical industry to create the Covid-19 vaccine within a year. She did so by conducting research that was totally different to what anyone else in her discipline was doing. It is essential that scientists are given the room to be creative.'

We need daring and creative ideas, unpredictability

Ben Feringa, Professor of Chemistry, University of Groningen

Measurement is difficult

Feringa’s examples provide an answer to the question of how you can measure societal impact: only with difficulty, precisely because it only becomes apparent in the long term. Andrea Evers and others warn that the results of research are more likely to percolate slowly into policy than arrive with a big bang. According to Davide Iannuzzi, it is almost impossible to know what research will ultimately have an impact: ‘Even leading investors don't know that. Probably less than ten percent ultimately succeeds. A structure like the Demonstrator Lab [a small-scale academic environment to give start-ups a chance, ed.] gives a team the chance to try something out and so determine its potential. It is a way of avoiding having to make a selection too soon.' Iannuzzi himself developed a new sensor and launched his own start-up with two employees ten years ago. The company now employs around a hundred people and has sold more than fifteen thousand sensors in 25 countries. ‘That is making a real impact, thanks to the marketing people in our team. They generated the multiplier effect. If I had not gone through that valorisation process, the sensor might have been used by myself and perhaps a few colleagues in my lab, but not by anyone else.' Iannuzzi also turns the question around: how precisely is scientific impact to be measured? On the basis of the number of publications and citations? ‘Let's be honest,’ he says, somewhat timidly. ‘How many people read a paper? You have far more impact if others help you to progress beyond publishing an article.’

Good education

Investment in good education and good basic science is essential for continuing to generate impact in the longer term, says Feringa. ‘I am a member of the European Research Council (ERC), which awards the ERC Grants. We have only one criterion: excellence. Is the research innovative, creative, daring? Because that determines which league you are playing in. The Netherlands secures a lot of grants, but we find that there is not enough investment in good education. I frequently visit schools and I can tell you: of all the problems we currently face – climate, energy, health care – education is my greatest concern. Unless that improves, we will soon no longer be able to compete internationally.'

Valorisation fund

Iannuzzi stresses that stimulating impact (valorisation as he calls it) must be accompanied by sufficient support, time and money for the people who undertake it. ‘Every university should have a fund for valorisation. Explaining and conveying knowledge to the public costs money.' Andrea Evers calls for challenge-based learning for students: 'Similar to the solar-powered car developed by students at TU Delft. Students can’t wait to take on the challenges facing society. We also need to invest in interdisciplinary programmes that are able to translate fundamental knowledge into applications for society.'

NWO: ideal balance between unfettered and thematic research is 1:1

The last few years have seen an increase in funding for demand-driven or thematic research in the Netherlands, NWO writes in its new strategy document. That is research whose subject matter is determined not by the researcher, but by others (society). With free, unfettered research, the subject matter or research method is determined exclusively by the researcher. According to NWO’s strategy, the balance between the budget for unfettered research and the budget for thematic research should ideally be 1:1, as the Weckhuysen Committee recommended earlier. The organisation plans to achieve that balance during the period of the new strategy document (2023-2026).