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Universities, societal impact & sustainable development

A closer look for research leaders

Updated: April 15, 2022

Universities, societal impact & sustainable development header image

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What is societal impact?

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

- Isaac Newton

In 1961, two researchers published articles:

about the discovery of messenger RNA (mRNA). While it took almost 60 years and many, many additional discoveries, those early breakthroughs drove the 2020 development of two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines — one from Moderna and the other from a partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech.

The researchers are standing on shoulders, building on a breakthrough finding with further discoveries until we can vaccinate the global population from succumbing to Covid-19. That is a lot of societal impact.

Increasingly, governments, funders, the community and more, are demanding to understand the value of university research. They want to know that the significant investment into research is going to help people.

Monk et al. (2017) articulated this sentiment well in the article, Five Ways Universities are Organising Themselves to Increase Societal Impact:

For many, universities and higher educational institutions continue to be viewed as elitist and isolated institutions, with little connection to the society, communities and organisations around them. Indeed, universities are large, bureaucratic organisations, and many still operate in this stereotyped ‘traditional’ way. However, at a time when the challenges facing society are increasing in scale and complexity, traditional institutions, from banks to the public service to NGOs, have begun reviewing their roles, in an effort to be more collaborative. Universities are no different. (p. 1)

From the Covid-19 vaccine example, it is evident that there needs to be a balance between what is known as “blue sky” research and applied and translational research. That is, we must strike a balance between fundamental discoveries — such as the existence of mRNA — and applied research — figuring out how to create a vaccine that will work.

Webinar: Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable

Learn more from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Watch the replayse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

Webinar: Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable

In “Bye, bye blue sky: Part 1: A conversation with Lee Croninse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana,” an episode of the Research 2030 podcast, Dr. Lesley Thompson, Vice President at Elsevier and former Programme Director at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the largest of the seven UK research councils, asked Dr. Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry, University of Glasgow:

If you are running this very adventurous, speculative, serendipitous research lab, can you describe the relationship between that endeavor and the work that you do that leads to applied science?

Listen to Dr. Cronin tell us about creating the “Chemputer”se abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana which he is using to produce new drugs and research the origin of life blue sky and applied all in one.

Listen to our podcastsse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

One of the driving forces behind doing research that leads to new drugs, new medical devices, new engineering feats, or more is when universities collaborate with industry partners. To learn more about this type of collaboration, you can read our University-industry collaboration guide.

Societal impact is a big topic that is spoken about and thought about in many different ways

For example, we will explore some of these topics:

  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

  • University Grand Challenges

  • “Moonshots”

  • Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings

What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

These are a new set of goals to finish work started in 2000 with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 17 new goals are called Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

According to the United Nationsse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana:

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

Higher education did not play a significant role with the initial 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals. However, that changed with the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Now, universities everywhere are interested in achieving these ambitious goals.

How to demonstrate your societal impact.

There are a lot of ways a university can demonstrate societal impact. For example, when speaking about SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, you have an impact by:

  • Providing free drinking water to students, staff and visitors

  • Promoting conscious water usage on campus and in the wider community

  • Planting landscapes to minimize water usage

A significant way universities show commitment to sustainable development and societal impact is by using their powerful research capabilities in these critical areas. You can also skip ahead to see how ScopusPure and SciVal can help you understand your societal and SDG research.

The SDGs

Scopus offers pre-generated search queries for 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

  1. Zero Hungerse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: End hunger, achieve food security and nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

  2. Good Health and Well-Beingse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

  3. Quality Educationse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

  4. Gender Equalityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

  5. Clean Water and Sanitationse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

  6. Affordable and Clean Energyse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy for all

  7. Decent Work and Economic Growthse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Promote sustained and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

  8. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructurese abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

  9. Reduced Inequalitiesse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Reduce inequality in an among countries

  10. Sustainable Cities and Communitiesse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

  11. Responsible Consumption and Productionse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

  12. Climate Actionse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Take urgent to combat climate change and its impacts

  13. Life Below Waterse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

  14. Life on Land:se abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat deforestation, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

  15. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutionsse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

  16. Partnership for the Goalsse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Learn more about SDGs in the RELX Resource Centerse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana or by visiting our Sustainability Science Hub.

SDG Academic Hubs

In 2018 the UN established 17 individual SDG Academic Impact Hubs. For example, the University of Pretoria (South Africa) is the hub for SDG 2: Zero Hungerse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana. According to the UN Academic Impactse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana website, they selected the University of Pretoria (UP) because their long-term strategy, known as UP 2025:

[University of Pretoria] is centered on research that addresses societal problems and, in particular, problems faced by Africa as a developing region. It hosts a number of SDG2se abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana-related Institutes, Centers and collaborate widely with South African, African and international institutions.

University of Pretoria

University of Pretoria




Kristu Jayanti Collegese abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 1: No poverty

University of Pretoriase abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

South Africa

SDG 2: Zero hunger

New York Medical Collegese abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

United States

SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing

University of Aucklandse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

New Zealand

SDG 4: Quality education

Ahfad University for Womense abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 5: Gender equality

University of Manitobase abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation

National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Energy Policy and Development Centrese abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy

Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering, and Management Sciencesse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Nagaoka University of Technologyse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Mount Kenya Universityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

UNISINOSse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities

University for Peacese abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

Costa Rica

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production

National University of Rosariose abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 13: Climate action

University of Bergense abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 14: Life below water

University of Zanjanse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


SDG 15: Life on land

De Montfort Universityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

United Kingdom

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

The new Hub will be announced soon

SDG 17: Partnership for the goals

What are the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings?

According to the World Economic Forumse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana, the Times Higher Education (THE) University Impact Rankingsse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana are the "world’s first global attempt to document evidence of universities’ impact on society, rather than just research and teaching performance."

The 2021 Impact Rankings included 1,118 universities from 94 countries.

NOTE: Take a deeper look at Elsevier and the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings.

For more information about THE World University Rankings, please visit our rankings guide.

THE says that, “We use carefully calibrated indicators to provide comprehensive and balanced comparisons across four broad areas: researchstewardshipoutreach and teaching.” THE created different measurable objectives for each of the 17 SDGs.

For example, SDG 5se abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana: Gender Equality:

The elements that make up the decision for the impact ranking on SDG 5: Gender Equalityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana.

Some of the categories break down further. For example, the 27% Research portion breaks down into:

  • Proportion of a university’s total research output that is authored by women (10%)

  • Proportion of papers on gender equality in the top 10 percent of journals as defined by Citescore (10%)

  • Number of publications on gender equality (7%)

In 2021, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman Universityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana was ranked #1 by THE for SDG 5. It is a large women’s university established in 1970, and an example of how the Impact Rankings can highlight the significant contributions toward societal impact a university is making.

La Trobe Universityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana ranked #2 for SDG 5 in 2021, is a larger research university, and is in the top 100 universities publishing the most gender-related research.

Each university has it's unique strengths and contributions to Gender Equality.

Please go here for a detailed look at all the factors that make up each SDG impact rank.

Overall rank

THE also calculates an overall rank. THE calculates the overall rank based on an institution’s top three SDGs plus SDG 17. Specifically, the weighting is:

  • SDG 17 accounts for 22% of the overall score

  • The other SDGs each carry a weight of 26%

In 2022, the University of Manchester had the highest overall rank, which is calculated based on the 3 SDG areas the University ranked strongest in, plus its score in SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals:

the University of Manchester overall rank

The score was calculated as:

However, THEse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana goes on to say,

The score from each SDG is scaled so that the highest score in each SDG in the overall calculation is 100. This is to adjust for minor differences in the scoring range in each SDG and to ensure that universities are treated equitably, whichever SDGs they have provided data for. It is these scaled scores that we use to determine which SDGs a university has performed most strongly in; they may not be the SDGs in which the university is ranked highest or has scored highest based on unscaled scores.

The Overall Impact Ranking has detractors. Can you add Gender Equality to Life Below Water? And then compare to another institution who is contributing to No Poverty and Zero Hunger?

In a piece written by Cesar Wazense abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana, Director of International Affairs Office at Qatar Universityse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana called, “Did the overall ranking mess it up?se abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana” he raises the point,

Why would you include an overall ranking if you want to highlight the efforts on each SDG, especially as some universities, by the constitution, cannot tackle all #SDGs, or at least 4 as the ranking requires?

Wazen proposes that the Impact Rankings Overall Rank be more akin to the Formula 1 racing point system.

  1. 25 pts

  2. 18 pts

  3. 15 pts

  4. 12 pts

  5. 10 pts

  6. 8 pts

  7. 6 pts

  8. 4 pts

  9. 2 pts

  10. 1 pts

Wazen proposes that the Formula 1 style system rewards institutions that perform well in one SDG more than the current system. For example, a university with a great community connection and serves food to those in need, and does significant research into poverty reduction, is ranked high for SDG 2: Zero abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana The high rank should carry more weight than a university with decent programs across the board, so their overall position is better. That is, Wazen says that high performers should get high benefits in the overall ranking system.

How can I rank in the THE Impact Rankings?

According to THEse abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana:

  • The Impact ranking is open to any higher education institution in the world THE states that they want this ranking to be as inclusive as possible

  • It is different from the THE World University Rankings, which includes a minimum publication volume as part of the eligibility criteria — there is no minimum here

  • If an institution does not provide any data, it will not be ranked

  • If you would like to take part in the impact rankings email, 

    [email protected]se abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana

  • There is no participation fee

A university can participate in as many or as few of the SDGs as they want. If they submit only one (or two), THE will evaluate them for a position within that SDG, but not the overall rank.

climbing ranks illustration

For eligibility for the overall rank, a university must submit data on at least three SDGs plus SDG 17. If you provide data on more than three SDGs, THE will take the top three best scores for consideration in the overall rank.

Data collection on the SDGs is challenging for an institution. While Elsevier, via Scopus data, provides the research component for each SDG, it is up to the institution to provide the rest.

In “Societal Impact, SDG Research & Universities: A conversation with Professor Aluísio Segurado of University of São Paulose abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana” an episode of the Research 2030 podcast, Fernanda Gusmao of Elsevier asked Professor Aluisio Segurado, Head of Research at the University of São Paulo in Brazil:

Institutions need to provide evidence of the activities they developed that relate to SDGs. How did you gather such evidence? How many people were involved, and from which departments?

How does SDG research fit into the THE Impact Rankings Methodology?

Each SDG has a different methodology to capture the how an institution is contributing to the SDGs.Below is a summary of the methodology for each THE SDG Impact Rank. For more information on the research component for each SDG, please link to it from below.

What are the THE SDG Methodologies?


If you agree that understanding and analyzing SDG research is a good way to demonstrate societal impact, please follow our story to see how ScopusPure and SciVal can help.

SciVal top5 European institutions SDG2
  • Filter the researchers by their associated SDGs to find potential partners and more

Pure Portal Hector Olaloso

Download PDF version of this articlese abre en una nueva pestaña/ventana


Monk, J., Rim, S. J., & Pulford, L. (2017). Five ways universities are organising themselves to increase societal impact (Rep.). Retrieved March 4, 2021, from Social Innovation Change website.

Chankseliani, M., & McCowan, T. (2021). Higher education and the Sustainable Development Goals. Higher Education,81, 1-8.