Beyond Academic Impact: What is The Societal Contribution of Universities?

Universities are usually recognized for their academic activities and achievements, from scholarship, breakthrough research and technology development to cultivating the next generation of leaders.

students in a lecture room

However, as Dr. Anders Karlsson, Vice President of Global Strategic Networks at Elsevier, noted in a recent seminar hosted by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, universities also have a vital societal role to play that connects knowledge with communities beyond academia.

The seminar, titled "Beyond Academic Impact: What is the societal contribution of universities?", highlighted the effectiveness of using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for aligning the societal impact of universities. The SDGs, adopted by the UN in 2015, consist of 17 goals to address global challenges in the biosphere, society, and economy. These challenges are often interlinked and have trade-offs that need to be considered, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change.

During the seminar, Dr. Karlsson emphasized the need to measure data related to the SDGs saying "when we measure the right things and measure them right, we know what we need to do to change for the better." The challenges, he added, lie in translating the indicators for national competitiveness, environmental protection, social justice, equity and inclusion into indicators valued in academic settings, such as research output and citation impact, collaboration, policy citations, funding, and patents. While universities value quality in research, education, and innovation, and often communicate the achievements for public support by numbers, Dr. Karlsson also stressed the importance of universities' documenting support for the SDGs, tracking engagement and impact, sharing good practices, and supporting external engagements.

The seminar presented a case study from the University of Tasmania (UTAS), demonstrating the practical implications of research on societal issues. UTAS is ranked in the top 500 universities globally and is a pride of the local community in Tasmania, the largest island in Australia. The Tasmanian Societal Impact Model (TSIM) Playbook, developed under the leadership of the University Chancellor and in collaboration with Elsevier, listened to external and internal stakeholders and identified "health" as the area where UTAS can bring the greatest positive impact to the community.  A large bibliometric database with more than 7000 publishers was used to match research from publications to the SDGs. It aided the quantitative assessment of the alignment of UTAS' academic impact with SDGs. The playbook that resulted emphasized the importance of leveraging one's strengths to achieve the greatest possible impact and collaborating with the community to ensure all relevant information is captured and communicated.

The seminar highlighted the challenges of attributing societal impact and the time it may take for impact to materialize. Given that universities play a critical role in shaping the future of society, they must take proactive steps to create a positive impact on the world through their efforts.

Universities have the potential to make significant contributions to society beyond their academic impact, including promoting inclusion, enhancing public life, and fostering economic growth. As Dr. Karlsson noted, universities have a responsibility to understand how they can contribute to the SDGs and use this framework to measure and amplify the impact of their research. By doing so, universities can play a critical role in advancing global progress towards a sustainable future.

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