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Experts explore social impact of scientific projects

Author  :  WANG YOURAN and CHEN YUTONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-12-10

At present, compared with a unilateral emphasis on scientific impact indicators ranging from citation rates to journal impact factors, the social impact of scientific projects has been neglected for a long time—partially due to the lack of effective measurement standards.

Marta Soler-Gallart, a professor of sociology at the University of Barcelona, said that the current priority of social impact research is to track all sciences, as all of them are contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This orientation unfolds the best opportunity in history for the social sciences, for two reasons. First, scientists from very diverse disciplines have asked social scientists to collaborate with them as specialists, advising them on ways to enhance the social impact of their research. Even scientists who used to underestimate the social sciences are reaching out. The second opportunity unleashed by this priority, is the recreation of the meaning behind the origin of the social sciences. Originally, social sciences were created in order to provide citizens with knowledge about society that would allow them to govern themselves. By devoting more attention to social impact research, the value of the social sciences is highlighted.

In Soler-Gallart’s view, as Max Weber once very well analyzed, our society has tendencies toward bureaucratization. This process of bureaucratization has also affected the social sciences, to such an extent that they have lost their original meaning. Now, the social sciences have many difficulties maintaining and enriching the trust and enchantment of citizens. The application of science with and for society is part of the dialogic turn that current societies and social sciences are experiencing, and the proof is that this is reenchanting citizens to see and defend again the meaning of the social sciences.Some scholars contend that academic professionals should not take the initiative in pursing social impact through research. The main counter arguments include side effects of deviation from objectivity and value neutrality, retrogression of the sprit of inquiry, blurred boundaries between academic research and social campaigns, among others. Soler-Gallart agreed that these objections need to be carefully considered, as it is necessary to learn how to provide arguments about how to overcome them.

Esther Oliver, a professor of sociology at the University of Barcelona, stressed that research should be committed to both scientific impact and social impact. For researchers, the pursuits of social impact and scientific impact could be compatible in research design. However, research focused on social impact is emerging separately from research measuring scientific impact. Main databases of scientific impact do not include mechanisms to register and to analyze social impact.

The status quo needs to be challenged. Oliver expressed the necessity of providing clear evidence of which actions, based on scientific results, are helping improve societies, for example, contributing to eradicating poverty, exclusion, unemployment, and to protecting the planet. In that sense, it is relevant to evaluate the social impact of research because it provides evidence of social improvements which result from direct implementation of the results of a concrete research project. All of this works together to contribute to reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Oliver introduced the Social Impact Open Repository (SIOR). SIOR can help enhance scientific research, because it provides evidence of scientific impact which is connected to social impact, and increases the visibility of this research internationally. It has become a unique data source to evaluate the social benefits of research. In Oliver’s opinion, this repository will become a scientific egalitarian agora which incorporates the end-users’ voices through community peer review at global level, contributing to science with and for society.

The social impact assessment of scientific research projects is on the rise. Soler-Gallart argued that unnecessary self-censorship should be avoided in the endeavor to develop social impact research. “If social scientists limited ourselves to criticizing the evaluation of social impact, and excluded qualitative interpretative approaches, it would have been very negative not only for the social sciences but for all sciences and for society.”

Luckily there were, from the beginning, social scientists who collaborated at the global level, leading the evaluation of social impact so this evaluation has not only a positivist approach but also an interpretative one, Soler-Gallart said.

Editor: Yu Hui

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