The societal impact of universities needs clear performance indicators

The ability of universities to compete for international funding and to enhance well-being depends on their societal impact, not on direct investments in education and research. In terms of competitiveness, money is wasted if it does not have positive effects beyond the science community.

Unfortunately, there are no straightforward definitions for societal impact or its indicators in Finland. This poses an obstacle to universities' international competitiveness and their ability to be of concrete use to society. 

Finland's success rate in obtaining research funding from the EU is below the European average. This is partly because national dialogue on the societal impact of universities is constantly fixed on whether or not the Universities Act requires making an impact apart from education and research.

Furthermore, the discussion dwindles when methods of influencing typical to one field of science are shot down by other fields. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe contributes to society and measures its impact on a wide range.

It is high time universities start constructively exploring avenues other than research and education to make an impact on society and promoting them outside the scientific context. It is important to remember that no field of science is exempt from making an impact, which refers to financial, social, cultural, political, health-related or environmental contributions. The key is that the impact should extend beyond the scientific world.

Societal impact defined in concrete terms should be directly reflected in the funding of universities. Now, the Ministry of Education and Culture is yet again incorporating the concept of societal impact into the performance negotiations between universities and the Ministry, and into strategic funding.

This is a positive matter, but the Ministry must explicitly determine what it is evaluating and how, and how the issue is weighted in the funding scheme. It is in everyone's interest to pay attention to societal impact, as it essentially affects our competitiveness.

We should worry less about the euros that the Ministry will allocate based on societal impact alongside education and research, and more about the euros lost if we do not make a positive impact on the competitiveness of our society.

Further information:

Jari Hämäläinen, Vice President (research), jari.hamalainen@lut.fi, +358 40 596 1999