Jyrki Hakapää is a science adviser in the Strategic Research Unit at the Academy of Finland.
Accomplishing societal impact in research is a process, not an end result. The monitoring and review of this impact must show the process instead of simply listing its results. To better understand and evaluate the activities of its funded programmes and projects, the Strategic Research Council (SRC) has implemented a diverse list of indicators to analyse research and interaction work and introduced the use of ‘impact stories’, case studies that report the objectives and methods of interaction work and the types of impact achieved.
The first strategic research projects began working on their impact stories in early spring 2016. Each project will provide between three and five reports. Although the producing of these impact case studies is a continuous activity, the first highlight of the process took place in summer 2017 as the projects launched in 2015 submitted their stories to the SRC for review as part of their applications for the second funding period (2018–2021).
The impact stories are narratives. Through them, the projects discuss their concrete objectives and methods to achieve them, as well as the successes and surprises they have experienced. In other words, they are not simply lists recorded after-the-fact of accomplishments and possible opportunities for further research. Instead, they are primarily a continuously updated commentary on the concrete objectives of the work and the actions taken to achieve them. They also serve as a reflection on the successes of each stage of the project and on possible corrections to the work plan that have arisen from the activities.
A method to discuss how impact is manifested and how it can be achieved
It is the perception of the Strategic Research Unit that the impact stories serve a dual purpose for the projects, both as a way to explain their work to sponsors and other interested parties and as an opportunity to outline and discuss their work. After all, the multidisciplinary strategic research projects are extensive in scope, and comprehending the overall objectives and activities may be challenging. The projects need tools that help in discussing, re-evaluating and sharing their objectives, actions and successes. The collective monitoring and recording of activities and accomplishments is beneficial to not only the research project itself, but also its partners.
The impact stories explain which objectives and methods the project and its societal partners value and consider practical. They give the projects a space to discuss societal changes and their resulting needs for the redirecting of research and interaction work on new paths. They also emphasise the individuality of each project. As they work on different societal challenges, the projects are so differing in their content and actions to begin with that their activities cannot be monitored by a uniform set of output indicators.
Like all reports, the impact stories naturally attempt to express matters in the most favourable light to some degree. Nevertheless, they also allow projects to learn from their failures and reassess objectives that have been proven unattainable. As spotless brand-building opportunities, the stories would not serve the purposes of anyone.
In Finland, case studies such as the impact stories are a new method of monitoring research activities and their societal dimensions. Similar experiments have been conducted in, for example, the UK as part of the Research Excellent Framework 2014. Impact case studies require new skills from both the projects producing them and the sponsor demanding the narratives: when research is typically only described through results, how should the situation, changes and opportunities of an incomplete process be understood and appreciated? Within the projects, presentation skills and good penmanship are valuable assets. Indeed, the case studies produced during the first years of operation of strategic research funding vary wildly in their style and content.
SRC encourages openness
The Strategic Research Council has encouraged its funded projects to be as open in their activities as possible. Despite this, publicly available impact stories are limited to three projects, published on the websites of the Closeloop project, part of the programme A Climate-Neutral and Resource-Scarce Finland, the BeMine project of the Urbanising Society programme, and the Winland project of the Security in a Networked World programme, respectively. For incomplete projects, publicity is not always possible, especially if it weakens opportunities for interaction.
The SRC will continue to develop its processes for the monitoring and review of societal impact. In fact, the work has barely even begun. The next important target is in 2019, as the SRC projects launched in 2016 will receive their final reviews. Before this, the Strategic Research Unit will develop the review process and investigate new ways for bringing the results and self-reflections of the projects and programmes easily available to the wider society.