Metamenu

New Opinion paper published at Times Higher Education

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Scientific excellence and social relevance are two sides of the same coin

These days, it is commonplace to assert that science should be done in ways that respond to societal needs and concerns. However, opinions are divided on how to achieve that, particularly within a bottom-up, curiosity-driven research environment.

As institutions that combine research, education and caring for the long-term health of our knowledge base, universities are uniquely placed to lead the debate forward. Currently, accountability is often based around narrow research metrics, which limit consideration of universities’ contributions to society to a few productivity indicators and, potentially, overlook other important core responsibilities.

As academic scientists, we often feel that our communities have not yet developed a language to fully grasp and communicate the entanglements of their research with society. Even though many researchers may be sensitive to social concerns, universities often do not provide incentives that would allow such concerns to inform the planning and conduct of research, or the education of the next generation of scientists. In a time-constrained environment, societal relevance feels a less urgent priority than acquiring funding, publishing high-impact papers, competing in evaluations or securing ongoing employment.