EARMA Conference Oslo


Measuring societal impact; the quantitative vs qualitative approach

A discussion towards a common societal impact analysis framework


EARMA Conference Oslo

Format: Fifteen-Minute Discussion Tables

Topic: Impact

Session: BLUE7 - 15 Min Discussion Tables- Impact: Ojutkangas et al; Van Veen

Friday 6 May 12:45 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. (UTC)


The societal impact of academic research is increasingly getting attention, and planned impact should by now give results. But the EU lacks a clear framework for societal impact analysis. Therefor, a debate about how to measure societal impact is long overdue.

Working in research support in a university hospital in the Netherlands, I notice a stark contrast between two ways of showcasing societal impact. My librarian colleagues focus strongly on measuring societal impact metrics of our institute as a whole, ignoring the intricate nuances of a given impact project. On the other hand, my colleagues of the communication department have a keen eye for the story, but without quantitative support, the showcased impact lacks hard evidence. My experience in the United Kingdom taught me that both strategies could be reconciled.

When I was working in an impact team at a Welsh university, I noticed there was a very strong focus on evidencing impact. Per impact project, often quantitative data was collected to show the reach of the claimed impact. This was then combined with qualitative data, to show the significance, or depth, of the impact. Both this quantitative and qualitative data are then brought together into one narrative and presented as an impact case study. For instance: “Our newly developed medical treatment has had the following positive effects on these ten interviewed patients. The treatment has been applied a thousand times, therefore, the health benefits of the treatment can be extrapolated, giving a sense of both reach and significance.”

Combining both quantitative and qualitative evidence in an impact case study, much like the British approach, allows for showcasing all facets of societal impact of research. However, benchmarking against other institutes is arbitrary. Where do you stand in this debate? Should your institution focus on qualitative evidence, allowing for the broadest range of impact possible but forsaking evidence? Or should we develop a finite list of impact indicators so we could compare our institution against others? Or thirdly, as proposed here, a combination of both; best of two worlds or neither?

Take home message: although focus still tends to be on planning for impact, evidencing impact is a logical next step. But a standardized societal impact analysis framework is absent in Europe. Therefor it is about time to discuss how we should be measuring impact.