The Academy of Finland had all Centres of Excellence (CoE) participating in the 2014–2019 Centre of Excellence Programme conduct a self-assessment of their impact in their final report. With the impact assessments, the Academy wanted to hear the CoEs describe in their own words the different forms and objectives of their impact and whether they had reached their impact objectives.
The Centre of Excellence Programme for 2014‒2019 included 14 CoEs composed of research teams from a total of twelve universities and research institutes. The Academy funded the Centre of Excellence Programme with 97.5 million euros.
On this page, we have compiled findings from the CoEs’ impact assessments. The focus is on the CoEs’ stories and views on what aspects of societal impact their research involved, the scope of the impact, the key channels and tools of impact, and the challenges that emerged in achieving impact. The quotes are cited from impact story comments.
The impact assessments of the Centres of Excellence whose term concluded in 2019 highlighted an objective of actively making science and research easier to understand.
Based on their impact stories, the CoEs found the Centre of Excellence Programme to be a very important funding instrument that provides a long-term opportunity for effective research.
“Centre of Excellence funding makes it possible to form long-term research groups, to have more sustained cooperation between multidisciplinary research groups and to develop innovative approaches in research. As a source of funding, it also supports more experimental and risky research initiatives for solving problems.”
Enabling academic freedom was considered an important feature of CoE funding: “Our research is good use of taxpayer money, and we want to share our findings with the people who are paying for the research, i.e., the taxpayers.”
The impact stories stated that, depending on the field of science and the tasks of the research organisation, scientific research may have various impacts. Societal expectations of the impact of science also vary from one field of research to another.
“With the knowledge and competence we get from research, we can do things like increase welfare by promoting economic activity, facilitate or improve decision-making with information that supports it, build competence for the needs of business and industry, or support people’s mental growth and education. In the long term, scientific research will also reform societal goals and our concepts of how to promote them.”
Based on the CoEs’ self-assessments, impact through research can be achieved with research results, co-development and experts. The impact stories highlighted the significance of systematic planning and implementation of societal interaction in research. At the same time, verifying impact involved some difficulties:
“It can be difficult to measure and document impact if you are aiming for a deeper understanding of the world through research data. For example, the research in some fields creates an impact by diving into the historical aspect of topical questions, thereby helping us to understand the roots and causes of the issues of today. Research results may not always have a direct link to acute societal decision-making or discussion.”
The impact stories revealed that an essential aspect of impact is that its time frame varies by case and field of research: impact is not always generated by individual research results; sometimes it is a result of persistent work conducted over years and decades.
The impact stories of the CoEs participating in the Centre of Excellence Programme 2014–2019 highlighted the importance of international impact.
“The aim is to raise research carried out by the Centres of Excellence to the forefront of global awareness, increasing the economic prerequisites and societal impact of Finnish research. The goal is to highlight internationally credible examples of how Finnish, well-focused top-level basic research produces significant societal added value when it has long-term funding.”
The CoEs particularly emphasised the importance of global impact in the international scientific community and in their networks and conferences. Impact objectives included the visible publication of research results in distinguished international peer-reviewed scientific journals.
In the context of Finland and the Finnish-speaking area, the CoEs especially highlighted the significance of publishing scientific findings in Finnish and in a more popularised manner, for example in non-fiction publishing.
“International research articles lay a foundation for publishing articles in Finnish, with a readership outside academia.”
When describing effective indicators of impact, the CoEs included national and international recognition awarded to individual researchers as well as the visibility of projects in the academic world. The impact assessments also underlined the importance of consistently receiving research funding. In their impact stories, the CoEs also emphasised the importance of employing and training young researchers and them becoming qualified as experts:
“The Centre of Excellence Programmes have made it possible to create new research jobs in Finland and add to researchers’ career development opportunities – while taking the perspectives of equality and equity into account.”
In the context of impact, the CoEs often mentioned researcher cooperation, multidisciplinary cooperation projects in national and international forums, and the networking of Finnish science. In addition, the CoEs brought up the impact of the Centres of Excellence in terms of investing in research infrastructure development projects.
For academic impact, the CoEs mentioned refining education with new research data. In this context, the development of new educational content and the education of critical mass were determined as a significant impact.
Generally, the CoEs’ impact assessments emphasised change and need for new research openings to match changing operating environments and the world.
The CoEs estimated that impact would allow them to bring visibility to the significance of their research, which the CoEs said would have an effect on applying for and receiving funding.
The challenges of impact were combined with concerns about the continuity of research funding:
“There is a risk that the combination of basic research and applied research that has been launched with new efforts will not survive the generation change without earmarked support from the university or the Academy. From a funding perspective, the importance of long-term, high-quality basic research still does not seem sufficiently appreciated in Finland, and we have found that our most promising young researchers have drawn their own conclusions from this and are either moving to high-level scientific countries offering steady research funding or switching over to other sectors.”
Based on the CoEs’ self-assessments, some of the key impact objectives have been to promote the fields of research represented by the CoEs and the research methods used by them and to introduce the resulting research results to the general public. One concrete example was presenting new research-based perspectives in connection with healthcare treatment recommendations.
In practice, the CoEs’ impact was aimed at disseminating information in a widespread way to all citizens and consumers, decision-makers responsible for education, pupils in comprehensive education and all students up to university level, young researchers and business representatives.
One more specific objective was to have an impact on general civic debate. This referred to things like correcting misunderstandings in public debate – also on social media – related to the CoEs’ research topics. At best, this type of impact was estimated to bring about changes in people’s actions and behaviour.
In their assessments, the CoEs stated that a significant impact objective was to be able to present their scientific reports and recommendations to decision-makers. In this context, impact was defined as research-based counsel on societal decision-making. One way this could happen was to impact the drafting of legislation and central government strategies by interacting with other actors in society.
Channels of impact included writing reports and publications, researchers’ membership in various working groups and representative bodies, and expert hearings and meetings. In addition to the national level, the impact stories emphasised the importance of the EU. For the EU, the CoEs defined target groups of impact to be Members of the European Parliament and officials of the Commission and Parliament.
“At best, impact leads to a dialogue with key ministers and important civil servants in terms of the issues under research. People have found that decision-making does not utilise scientific knowledge to a sufficient extent.”
In connection with impact, the CoEs also highlighted joint projects on research issues between public sector organisations, business life, civil society and the organisational sector: “One of our essential impact objectives is to make our research topic better understood among different societal stakeholders.”
As a more general objective of societal impact, the CoEs mentioned the promotion of well-being, balance, safety and security as well as preparedness for major upcoming changes, such as combating climate change:
“We need more research to solve societal problems, to bring clarity to the key uncertainties of our future. Decision-makers need better tools for assessing the big picture.”
One of the topics of the Centre of Excellence impact stories was the impact on economic growth, rising employment and the creation of new jobs. In this context, the CoEs’ assessments emphasised cooperation with commercial actors, especially for the utilisation of research applications and innovations and for working in different centres of competence.
Based on the CoEs’ responses, the most important aspect of corporate cooperation was being able to enable business life to effectively use the results of applied research utilising the results of solid basic research. In terms of international impact, the target was clearly set for the development of new export products.
“We have to bring together the best of basic research nationally and internationally, including companies that conduct pilots on applied innovations that are based on basic research, as well as start-ups and spin-off companies that commercialise inventions created with applied research data.”
Among channels of impact for corporate cooperation, the CoEs listed patents, licences and invention disclosures as well as new technologies and platforms intended for business and industry.
The CoEs estimate there to be special potential for economic growth in the international commercialisation of research competence and applications that are in line with sustainable development. In terms of impact in increasing employment, the CoEs mentioned competitive education for physicians to act in various expert positions in fields that benefit from higher education. The CoEs also mentioned making research findings available to non-profit organisations to promote academic research.
The Centres of Excellence estimated that communicating their key research results was essential for impact. By promoting the latest research information, they were able to gain more visibility for their fields of research and the produced applied research results. In addition, the CoEs’ assessments highlighted the importance of stimulating societal discussion. For this purpose, channels of impact included featured expert articles, blogs, social media and TV, radio and newspaper interviews and researchers participating as experts in open public and discussion events as well as giving presentations and lectures, webinars and making various types of visits.
At times, the CoEs found it challenging to discuss complex phenomena in a simplified way. Impact through debates on social media was also affected by the nature of the communication platform:
“It is a waste of time and energy for researchers to engage in arguments, especially on social media, where views are set in stone and people are unwilling to change their minds.”
At the same time, the CoEs stated that social media undisputedly brings added value as well. The impact stories mentioned Twitter and Facebook as well as YouTube videos as new platforms of research communication. The CoEs found that social media is a good platform for reaching teenagers and young adults in particular. In addition, the CoEs had been able to quickly share new research information with recordings shared on social media to support teachers’ work, for example.
“Social media presentations, including mobile and social journalism, have contributed to our visibility in traditional media. In addition, videos that popularise research data have generated a good amount of discussion, which hopefully will continue in the future with the videos remaining available online.”
The CoEs’ impact stories also highlighted several new types of impact, like researchers participating in the development of game scenarios as well as applications and interfaces that combine science and art. Based on the impact assessments, research information was used in different demos, art exhibitions and installations.
Researchers were also reported to have worked in expert tasks, for example authoring scientific content for various fundraising campaigns. Concrete impact objectives in these areas included supporting patient organisations or providing better care and support for people undergoing medical issues and their families and carers.
In addition to traditional media channels, the CoEs found new added value in presenting the impact of research particularly through modelling and productions in augmented reality and virtual reality. The CoEs considered these to be excellent modern methods of disseminating scientific information by concretising the impacts of abstract phenomena or existing operating models on different developments.
The CoEs’ impact stories show that researchers participate in societal dialogue and have impact in a number of different ways. In addition to academic recognition, the CoEs identified one indicator of impact to be societal recognition awarded to researchers.
The CoEs’ assessment also stated that research results have been used to boldly influence decision-making even in controversial societal contexts. In these cases, the challenge has at times been the unexpectedly intense polarisation of societal discussion.
“Questioning scientific knowledge has become more common in Finland. Having researchers actively participate in civic debate has led to tense and unpleasant situations at times. People have smeared researchers on different platforms and accused them of rejecting scientific objectivity. People have called them names like ‘agenda researcher’ and equated them to various industry lobbyists. Individual researchers have also had people call them pseudoscientists, especially on social media, after participating as experts in public events where their research topic was being discussed.”
On the other hand, the unexpected effects of the impact of research have created positive results as well. For example, research applications using unpredicted findings have been commercialised as new business and products.
The CoEs estimated that one of the most essential aspects enabling chance breakthroughs is close cooperation and a shared language in an inclusive operating environment:
“A successful multidisciplinary approach is a process of creating something new that does not clearly belong to a specific field.”