Societally impactful research is already taking place in South Africa; institutions must locate the evidence and be more intentional about this approach 

27-09-23 USAf 0 comment

How can universities create impact with their research? Just start monitoring it, was the overriding message at a discussion on this topic at the 7th Biennial Research and Innovation (R&I) Dialogue in Umhlanga on 21 and 22 September. 

The 2023 R&I Dialogue, hosted by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Research and Innovation Strategy Group, was themed Research and Innovation for Societal and Economic Impact.  

“Stop talking about it and do something,” said Professor Chris Brink (right), Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University in England, who is a former Rector of Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Among his numerous accolades, Professor Brink is known for championing socially responsive universities through his two books: The Soul of a University; Why excellence is not enough (2018) and The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa (2021).

“Ask your researchers: ‘Can you give me some examples (of research that had impact)?’ “Professor Brink went on to tell the audience.  “…and it will be to everybody’s benefit.

“While it is valuable to talk about policy, to talk about strategy, and we must have committees and documents, we can talk about it for three years. I come back to the fundamental point – just get started,” said Brink.  He convened the Hong Kong Research Assessment Exercise in 2020 and will also convene the 2026 one.

Professor Heidi van Rooyen (left), Group Executive of the Impact Centre of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), felt similarly about the need to get stuck in and start. She said institutions spoke about wanting to change their culture but “you can swirl around in culture forever and you will get nowhere. It will kill you eventually – culture does that. So intention must shift culture,” she said. 

“You have to move to formalising it at some point for it to have meaning,” she said, continuing to relate how the HSRC had achieved a re-focus on impact. To that end, they had asked staff to bring case studies of impact to the Council’s lekgotla. There had been an uproar. “Everybody kicked and screamed and ‘no’ and ‘hoo’ and ‘haa’,” she said. Yet they had ended up with about 100 stories of impact. And the net effect, she said, was realising they did impactful work that makes a difference.

“So at some point, you got to take the kicking, screaming academics to the water, shove their heads in it, make them drink the good stuff. And the good stuff is the recognition that we don’t just do this work in the academy for ourselves. Ultimately, we all are driven by this bigger question of addressing the issues in society, whether economic, developmental, whatever they are for you. But you have to make them see it. And then once they see it, they will want it, as Chris (Brink) has been saying, and you will get the momentum you want,” she said.

Professors Brink and Van Rooyen were responding to questions and comments following a panel discussion on Research and Innovation Impact at the Dialogue. The third panellist was Dr Linda Mtwisha, Executive Director of Research at the University of Cape Town (UCT). USAf’s CEO, Dr Phethiwe Matutu, chaired the discussion.

We need to map South Africa’s research impact

Professor Stephanie Burton (right), a biochemistry professor and a faculty fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa, who is also a USAf research fellow, suggested the need to initiate, perhaps through USAf, a national research impact assessment. “It has been a rich session,” she said. Now they needed to put everything together – ideas such as fitting together fundamental knowledge and the generation of new knowledge. “It’s time for us to start to do that,” she said.

A national research impact assessment would likely be in line with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, Hong Kong’s Research Assessment Exercise that Brink convenes, and the Australian Research Council’s Engagement and Impact Assessment, all of which have online databases where one can search for impact case studies.

Professor Brink said he strongly endorsed Burton’s suggestion. “It’s time in South Africa to make that mind switch, to acknowledge the value of fundamental research, to endorse all the wonderful things that the chemists and the mathematicians and so on are doing, to get started on this agenda”. 

A simple way to start documenting impact

“We all feel energised to go back to our institutions and do the right thing,” Dr Phethiwe Matutu had said, at the start of the discussion session. Professor Brink then went on to provide what he called “something really simple” participants could do.  

“When you go back to your university, if you are the Vice-Chancellor or Deputy Vice-Chancellor, or the Director of Research, write a nice letter to every head of department and say: ‘Can you please give me some examples of the societal impact of research done over the past 10 years or 20 years?’ and send that to every unit that has a reasonable size  – 15 to 20 people or more and has been around for that long. And see what you get. 

“If you get good examples, put them on your website. If you don’t get a good example from any department, engage in a conversation with them, and say: ‘Do you really want to say that we have a department that has no societal impact whatsoever?’ If they say ‘Yes, we have no societal impact whatsoever’, then you say: ‘So why should we have you?”

Impact does not mean throwing out fundamental research 

Professor Burton said she wanted to thank Dr Mtwisha (left) for acknowledging the need to maintain and recognise new knowledge, that is, fundamental research. “It is not something to be dispensed with,” she said. In some disciplines fundamental research became, “in time, the material on which the impact work is developed” even if there could be quite a long time span, possibly 10 years, between the research and generating follow-up. 

Brink said the common way of dealing with the time lag was to distinguish between the impact and the underpinning research. “The impact should be recent, but the underpinning research in the exercises I’m familiar with could be as much as 20 years back,” he said.

The impact of Carnegie Corporation’s funding at UCT

Professor Brink said the Carnegie Corporation had funded postdoctoral research fellows at UCT, for a period of two years for each fellow, doing that for a few years. There are currently 50 fellows.  Every year UCT sends a report, and it is always about the outputs: an impressive list of the prestigious journals in which the research fellows had published in. This year the Carnegie Corporation asked for an impact assessment instead, which UCT had asked him to do.

He said UCT has 22 “eminent, highly respected, excellent research units”. Eighteen of these units’ websites said they want to work for the benefit of society. “Not one single one gave one single example. Surely, if you get money like that, if you have the intention to provide a benefit to society at some point, you have to say ’and this is what I did’. So, when is that moment going to arrive?  It’s up to you.”

Questions on collaborating and academic entrepreneurship for impact

Question: Dr Ndumiso Cingo (right), Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR): “I want to ask about the value of partner collaboration as a pathway towards impact. There is the perspective that in South Africa we don’t have much of an ability to frame national questions and challenges with an array of institutions and players, so that they can address and resolve these problems and therefore achieve the impact we seek. We need to have a mindset and a process that leads us towards that kind of thinking. COVID-19 led to a lot of institutions in the country focusing their efforts, and one can learn from that, which will allow us to achieve more.” 

Question: Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University: “Universities have different ways of incentivising researchers, which sometimes can negatively impact collaboration, especially if it is insular and just recognising individual contribution. Can you talk to that?”

RESPONSE: Dr Mtwisha: “Collaborations and collaborators in driving impact are of critical importance because, within the national system of innovation, we have institutions with unique and complementary mandates. Where we are working with constrained resources, it is important for us to collaborate. We have seen a number of great research outcomes end up within the university’s confines, simply because we are not collaborating, whether it be with research councils like the CSIR or industry partners who have the capacity for scaling up and taking products to market. We need to reflect on why we are not establishing and sustaining effective and long lasting cross-sectoral collaborations. What are those administrative hindrances? And what is it in our practice that hinders the flow of information from one group, one setting, to the other?” 

Question: Mr Abe Mathopa (left), Manager: Research Capacity Development in the Department of Research and Innovation at UP: “Based on the study I did at our business school on academic entrepreneurship and the ecosystem within universities, some entrepreneurs were saying they don’t feel valued in our academic institutions; their activities are not seen as true academic work. Academic entrepreneurship is frowned upon in our institutions because it doesn’t bring in money, whereas publications do. Academics are forced to go that route, to publish, to attract the Department of Higher Education and Training subsidy. And it is part of their KPIs (key performance indicators). So how do we go back to our institutions and change their mindsets and teach academic entrepreneurship social impact?”

RESPONSE: Dr Mtwisha: “On barriers to academic entrepreneurship, it’s important that we also consider entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial mindsets. We want to have not only innovators, but people with innovative minds, to be able to respond to issues of inefficiencies, to be able to respond to ways in which to enhance our capabilities for us to have more impact as institutions.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.