- What is societal impact?
- What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
- What are the THE Impact Rankings?
- How can I rank in the THE Impact Rankings?
- How does SDG research fit into THE Impact Rankings?
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:
- An unstable intermediate carrying information from genes to ribosomes for protein synthesis
- Unstable ribonucleic acid revealed by pulse labelling of Escherichia coli
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.
In “Bye, bye blue sky: Part 1: A conversation with Lee Cronin,” 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” which he is using to produce new drugs and research the origin of life – blue sky and applied all in one.
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,
- The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- University Grand Challenges
- Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings
We will explore some of these topics.
According to the United Nations:
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.
Click on SDG to see the research highlights.
- No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms.
- Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
- Good Health and Well-Being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
- Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
- Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
- Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
- Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy for all.
- Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
- Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
- Reduced Inequalities: Reduce inequality in an among countries.
- Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
- Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
- Climate Action: Take urgent to combat climate change and its impacts.
- Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
- Life on Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat deforestation, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
- Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
- Partnership for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
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 Hunger. According to the UN Academic Impact 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 SDG2-related Institutes, Centers and collaborate widely with South African, African and international institutions.
17 academic hubsShow the hubs
United Arab Emirates
SDG 17: Partnership for the goals
What are the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings?
World’s first global attempt to document evidence of universities’ impact on society, rather than just research and teaching performance.
The 2020 Impact Rankings included 768 universities from 85 countries.
NOTE: For more information about THE Rankings in general, please visit our rankings guide.
THE says that, “We use carefully calibrated indicators to provide comprehensive and balanced comparisons across four broad areas: research, stewardship, outreach and teaching.” THE created different measurable objectives for each of the 17 SDGs.