Dr Linda Mtwisha, the executive director of research at the University of Cape Town (UCT), said that it’s imperative to develop a national research impact assessment system where information on research impact can be collected so that universities that don’t have adequate resources and research management capacity are not disadvantaged and left behind.
The Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town (UCT) is one of seven interdisciplinary research entities and 89 accredited research groupings of UCT undertaking research with socioeconomic impact.
Such impact includes having protected 31 000 children from losing the Child Support Grant while the team of seven researchers continues to produce an average of 21 peer-reviewed publications annually, said Dr Linda Mtwisha (below), Executive Director: Research at UCT.
Dr Mtwisha was speaking on the topic, Towards assessing research and innovation impact at a university level: the UCT journey, at the Research and Innovation Dialogue, held in Umhlanga on 21 and 22 September. She was part of a panel discussing Research and Innovation Impact at the Dialogue.
Dr Mtwisha said the Children’s Institute showed how “at UCT we don’t take social responsiveness or engaged scholarship as a separate stream. It’s fully embedded in teaching and learning and research activities. And I think that’s why we’ve seen such good quality research impact cases”.
She added that although the Faculty of Health Sciences, by nature of its clinical research responsive to societal needs and policy, has stood out for its impactful research, UCT’s research impact stories are not widely known inside or outside the university. They are working on improving this because it hinders research collaborations.
She said more and more researchers at UCT are conducting research with impact beyond the academic boundaries. Because scholars are not adequately recognised or rewarded for it, research impact is under reported internally.
Massive transformative purpose at UCT
UCT is committed, nonetheless, to positioning its academics to contribute to challenges within society, said Mtwisha, as articulated in UCT Vision 2030: unleash human potential for a fair and just society.
“We’re not going to be able to realise it on our own. It’s a massive transformative agenda which requires partnerships across the sectors of the economy, within the continent,” she said. And it’s been a long journey mapped with challenges and gains, she said.
As such, they were deliberating on:
- what defines impact in research;
- how can UCT measure impact beyond bibliometrics; and
- how to mainstream the broadened ways of assessing research impact.
Impact is not divorced from high quality research
UCT is increasingly focusing on engagements about research impact. Dating back in 2018, they have had several conversations where they invited parties from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and representatives from government and industry to collaborate and understand its implications for what they do.
She said it was important to highlight that socioeconomic impact, with outcomes such as technical reports, patents, policy briefs, and changing behaviour in society, “does not take away from high-quality academic products such as peer-reviewed papers. We are seeing cases where these two outcomes are happening hand in hand. It’s not ‘either or’, but ‘and’,” she said.
UCT and policies
She listed a string of policies that UCT has aligned itself to. The Research Data Management Policy (2018) that “really set the tone at UCT” because it “indicates the seriousness with which we are embracing socially responsive research”.
In 2019 UCT stated its support for the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which recognises the need to improve the ways in which researchers and the outputs of scholarly research are evaluated.
The challenges are that because the guidelines to faculties on broadening the assessment of the research impact that have been developed, are adopted inconsistently, although some have made them part of their promotions processes. “It’s a cultural thing. Until it’s a policy, people are going see it as a nice-to-have, but we are working on it,” she said.
UCT has established a committee that is defining what research impact is in the context of UCT, and how they will measure it.
She said as the NRF implements its framework for social and knowledge impact of Research, it could possibly extend impact parameters to its rating process “because it might help researchers to extend how they evaluate the impact of what they do”, she said.
Assessing impact is time consuming and resource intensive, said Mtwisha. “We need to consider developing a national research impact assessment system where we are able to collect information on research impacts at a systemic level so that universities that don’t have adequate resources and research management capacity are not disadvantaged and left behind,” she said.
“This conversation really excites me, because it brings the opportunity for South African universities to consolidate and have evidence for areas where they are making an impact and the extent. This will facilitate and encourage research collaborations among us in a way that we will have even greater impact in responding to national priorities,” said Dr Mtwisha.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.