The demand for impact by universities and the aim of university staff to influence are as old as the university institution. However, the pressure to measure the impact is growing. Drawing a strict line between basic research and applied research is detrimental, because everyone is entitled to conduct impactful research. It is the duty of university education to cultivate influential individuals, writes Dean Mikko Mönkkönen. 

Originally, universities were established to educate civil servants. Though the education responsibility is still a central part of universities’ role in society, in current discussion the impact of universities usually refers to the impact of research.

However, it is a known fact that it is difficult to measure the impact of research. Available indicators of impact describe the real impact only narrowly, and we do not even have existing meters for many forms of impact. These deficiencies are surprising because impact has always been one of universities’ tasks. It is also challenging that impact is realised in many different ways in different fields of science and in the work of different researchers. Therefore, it is essential that universities independently define the targets of their impact and the way to evaluate them.

Anyway, it is clear that impact results from quality. Quality and impact are intertwined characteristics but cannot be measured just by comparing them only. Quality requires teamwork: When a phenomenon is understood thoroughly – thanks to high-quality research – this understanding may be transmitted in society via the researcher, the research community or education. The transmission requires communication and dialogue between researchers and society. As a result, research generates impact.

The education level of citizens has increased and taxpayers, meaning the financers of science, have become more competent and increasingly willing to question how their money is spent.

The pressure to demonstrate impact increases constantly. Researchers at universities often highlight the importance of basic research and consider research aiming at direct impact to be a separate task that is not part of basic researchers’ repertoire. Instead, it belongs to separately named applied researchers, intermediaries who communicate about and popularise science, or even those outside the research community, such as companies.

In my opinion, this is a harmful and dangerous division. It is harmful because this way of thinking divides research and researchers into two separate camps and keeps us from seeing the results of research in a larger societal framework. The way of thinking in itself is prone to prevent the birth of new applications. The conception is also dangerous because it gives ammunition to those with a sceptical or hostile attitude towards research to deprecate the importance of science for the development of society. This erodes the position of science in society.

The impact of universities and research requires that we have, in addition to high-quality research, functional tools to communicate ideas, competence and understanding between academia and society – in both directions, since impact takes place through various routes.

The impact of research is not separate from education.

By definition, university education is based on research. On the other hand, university education raises the next generation of researchers. Therefore, one way to increase the societal impact of research is to more closely link education to the needs of society. In the planning of university education, dialogue between the different stakeholders of society helps to ensure that students graduating from a university have the research-based knowledge and skills that are needed in working life in the academic world as well as outside of it. This way research and education can together support the impact of science in society more effectively.

Mikko Mönkkönen

The author is a professor in applied ecology and the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Science at JYU.

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