Defining the impact of a research infrastructure

Defining the impact of a research infrastructure
by Rebecca Sierig

What is meant by the impact of a research infrastructure?

Research infrastructures are not created as an end in themselves, but in order to provoke a beneficial “change in the life or life opportunities of the community for which [they are] […] intended.” (Simon Tanner 2012). For a more detailed explanation of impact as change watch the video with Esther De Smet:

Far from being restricted to academia, this change can affect a wide range of domains and may be advantageous from several perspectives as Simon Tanner continues:

  • Educating and learning
  • Engaging and increasing knowledge
  • Economic and generating wealth
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Social and community cohesion
  • Environmental and sustaining
  • Political and democratising
  • Technological and innovating
  • Entertainment and participation
  • Equality and equity.

(Simon Tanner 2012)

While this list of impact domains is comparatively detailed, most definitions of impact content themselves with summarising the domains into three categories: academic, societal and economic impact. These kinds of impact will be addressed in the following paragraphs.

One way that research infrastructures can initiate beneficial changes in academia is their potential to raise the efficiency of research by avoiding duplication of work: they help in bundling interests and tend to foster international collaboration. Also building and operating a research infrastructure might entail the development of innovative methods for, for instance, data integration, management, and analysis that are impactful in fields such as informatics or information science. Watch the video with Sally Chambers to learn how a research infrastructure can help with storing and managing research data:

However, the impact of a research infrastructure does not stop at the level of research. Ideally, science (both hard and soft) leads to new insights which are for the benefit of society as a whole. The wider impact of a research infrastructure within society is very hard to pinpoint, let alone measure. This is what Steven Krauwer points out, explaining impact assessment by means of an analogy. Watch the video with Steven Krauwer to learn more about his understanding of impact:

Not only research infrastructures, but also the European Commission is aware of this challenge, as is also apparent in the ESFRI Roadmap 2016 (p. 180). From left to right, the model moves increasingly further away from the source.

In the world of medicine, the concept of a research infrastructure having societal impact is fairly easy to grasp. If a new vaccine against a wide-spread illness is developed based on the data in a research infrastructure, the benefits to society are tangible and direct. Traditionally, the humanities have always found it harder to explain what their research brings to society in terms of valorisation. However, there are certainly examples illustrating how research infrastructures in the Humanities field reach out and make a difference.

Example 1: EHRI and Project Resonance

In 2017, EHRI joined forces with MediaLAB, an interdisciplinary studio, part of the University of Applied Sciences of Amsterdam, where students and researchers work together on innovative and interactive media research projects. The challenge presented to the students of MediaLAB was to present the content of EHRI in a way that a more general public without specialist knowledge could relate to and experience. This resulted in a project called ‘Resonance’. This involved an experimental website with two sides, called “Silence” and “Music”, where Holocaust sources are presented in new ways to engage the general public with Holocaust historic information, stimulating interest in the topic while also being educational. In the following video Petra Drenth (Communication and Dissemination Officer EHRI & PARTHENOS) explains how the project was conceived and expands on some of the most important lessons learned in terms of communicating the scientific research topics a research infrastructure focusses on to society at large.

Watch the interview with Petra Drenth (EHRI and PARTHENOS) to learn more about the collaboration between EHRI and MediaLAB:

Example 2: Europeana Roadshows. Europeana: Transforming the world with culture

Bildergebnis für europeana roadshows

Verwayen, H. (2017): The Impact of Cultural Heritage: creating a common language.

Europeana uses the slogan “Transforming the world with culture” to emphasise the potential of digital cultural heritage objects to play a meaningful role in society. To increase the impact of Europeana’s material, the organisation actively encourages the use and re-use of digital cultural heritage in research, education, tourism and the creative industries. In theory and practice however, the concept of impact is a two-way street. Akin to the symbiotic relationship between RIs and researchers, Europeana invites its user base to not only use the its material, but also to actively contribute to it.

An example of how this reinforcing relationship is cultivated, is through the 1914-1918 roadshows. During these content-gathering campaigns, people were asked to bring their First World War objects, so that a digital replica could be created and included in Europeana’s collection. While this greatly increases the amount of material the project has to offer, there is also a less tangible benefit. Rather than only digitising physical material, an active group of contributors is build around these newborn digital collections, truly making it an inclusive, community-driven process and collection.

Is impact the same as outreach?

Impact ≠ Outreach

While the concepts of impact and outreach within the scope of research infrastructures cover a lot of common ground, they are by no means synonymous. As it is easy to confuse the two, let us pause for a moment to provide clarification regarding the two terms.

From the perspective of a research infrastructure, outreach activities entail everything the management does to foster or encourage dissemination, exploitation and communication (see also the section on Audiences and Communication, also available on this training suite). These three forms of outreach activities are closely related, but serve different purposes:

  • Dissemination focuses on making the results of a project accessible to stakeholders, such as researchers, managers of a research infrastructure and policy makers. The main goal behind doing so, is to make re-use of these results possible. Providing access, however, is not enough to make this happen. Active promotion and the encouragement of the re-use of data are key ingredients to an effective dissemination strategy.
  • The concept of Exploitation describes the active use of these results during the project or after. This translates into the enhancement of concrete activities through the use of the disseminated data. This could be better policy making or a more effective handling of problems affecting society.
  • Communication, lastly, is a strategic process to inform the public on what a project is doing and why society as a whole benefits from it. These activities, in which the media are often important players is most effective when it is a two way street. For research infrastructures who receive public – e.g. European – funding, communication is especially important as society has the right to know how tax money is spent (cf. Horizon 2020 2014: 1). That means that research infrastructures have the responsibility to be open and transparent.

By placing the data and the facilities of a research infrastructure into a wider landscape, stakeholders and society at large can potentially benefit from the data and services the research infrastructure generates. The aim behind the outreach activities described above is to direct attention to these research data, allowing the impact of project output to be facilitated. As such, impact can be seen as the desired effect of outreach.

Suzanne Dumouchel (DARIAH programme implementation officer) draws the line between impact and outreach a little differently. According to her, outreach is addressed to everybody, while impact is related to the identified stakeholders. Here you can watch the interview with Suzanne Dumouchel :

To learn more about impact and outreach and ways to create them, you can also browse the following resources.