University of Oulu, 2016

Societal impact of science via productive interactions

Science is traditionally regarded as a central knowledge-producing institution contributing to societal development in many ways. Previously, this was seen to take place in an automatic fashion without any deliberate attempts by academics to achieve impact for their research. Recently, social studies of science have fostered an alternative view according to which impact of science is a result of complex and often uncertain knowledge translation, which may take years or even decades to materialize into impacts. This short communication seeks to advance the latter view and suggests that universities should increasingly search for new ways to bring academics and various publics in contact with one another, for instance, by means of creating opportunities for what is called productive interactions.

Towards more interactive approach in science communication

The concept of productive interactions acknowledges that in addition to scientists also actors external to science are fundamental in creating science’s societal impact.

Science is seen as situated and negotiated process, which takes place in social contexts occupied by multiple groups of stakeholders with dissimilar interests in knowledge.

The question is no more about how to transfer knowledge to society, but about various ways in which societal actors may become engaged in interpretation and creation of new understandings based on science via collaborative and responsive modes of communication between academics and societal stakeholders. The concept of productive interactions, defined by a Dutch policy officer Jack Spaapen and researcher Leonie van Drooge, highlights precisely this. It pays attention to such exchanges in which knowledge is interactively produced and adapted to various uses in society. These kinds of encounters become societally productive when they lead to efforts by stakeholders to interpret research results with an aim of having impact on everyday activities outside academia. Productive interactions are thus preconditions for societal impact of science, an achievement, which may take years to materialize as will be discussed below with reference to urban studies.

Productive interactions in urban research

Professor Mari Vaattovaara and her research group initiated in the late 1990s research program which changed the way in which policymakers see urban development and segregation in Helsinki area. Traditionally, the term segregation was avoided, because of its negative overtones and the city’s emphasis on egalitarian urban policy. However, a significant shift in the conceptualization of urban development took place by the turn of the Millennium based on research by Vaattovaara and her colleagues. Already in the 1990s, the researchers observed initial signs of segregation in Helsinki but these results and the whole phenomenon was rejected by the city officials and policymakers. Vaattovaara’s group continued to focus on the issue, both in research and in the public press, simultaneously as the phenomenon itself transformed from a small seed into self-perpetuating social force in the city. Thus, after a series of heated public debates and policy communications over a long period of time the policymakers and other stakeholders acknowledged segregation as a real phenomenon fundamentally shaping the city. The public discussion about the issue facilitated transformation of the dominant understanding of urban development and turned segregation into a phenomenon, which was seen to evolve in time and take multiple manifestations in different parts of the city.

The example illustrates the achievement of social impact of science via productive interactions in public. The transformation of the common understanding of urban development proceeded through a series of contentious interpretations by different actors—a process which gradually paved the way for a new understanding according to which segregation was a real threat and had to be tackled with adequate policy measures. Productive interactions were thus vehicles by using which initially unorthodox research results became transformed into accepted social facts in the wider society.

What about university policy?

The previous example emphasises the need of moving away from control-oriented and indicator-based impact assessment to interactive approaches in research evaluation, i.e., ones that would pay attention to long timescales and complex communications among different groups of actors. Furthermore, raising awareness of scientists about issues related to interpretative nature of impact will prepare their capacity to become engaged in societally effective communications. To facilitate this line of activity and to help academics to manage social pressure and criticism involved in public communication, researchers should be trained to bring their results to public in such a way that would foster social learning based on divergent viewpoints. To achieve this, universities have started to provide support for researchers, for instance, in terms of creating new forums for societal discussion and offering expert services to facilitate science communication. This is also something recently established expert group, Oulu University’s Think Tank of Science, Technology and Society Relations, seeks to do: to increase the academic community’s capabilities in science communication and to help the university to achieve this challenging and timely objective.

Last updated: 20.11.2017

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