Leiden Law Blog

A reappraisal of the societal value of research?

A reappraisal of the societal value of research?

Universities are increasingly expected to contribute with their research to the economy and to wider society, which has become known as ‘knowledge valorisation’ in the Netherlands. After years of measuring the quality of research on the basis of the number of publications, a reappraisal for research that contributes to wider society is visible. The new protocol for research assessments, which has just been announced, will put more emphasis on the quality of the work of academics. Productivity  will no longer be a separate standard. The new protocol explicitly calls for more attention for the societal relevance of research and for academic integrity. Is this change of direction good news for criminological and legal research?

If legal scholars contribute to a new law, or if their work is discussed in parliament, these are indications of societal impact. If criminologists’ work is used to help selecting promising sanctions for youngsters who have broken the law, the same holds. Traditionally law and criminology have been relatively actively engaged in society, but they have drifted away from wider society over the years. Not because researchers lost their interest in society, but because their work was increasingly assessed through frameworks that favoured academic specialisation over a broad outlook and that put pressure on publishing in international journals rather than in journals that address a wider audience. Careers were built on looking inward rather than outward.  

Therefore it is good news that VSNU (the association of Dutch universities) has just announced that they will no longer take the productivity  of research groups as separate indicator of success. It is not that difficult to see that the number of publications on its own is not such a sound indicator of quality, but in practice it has seriously affected the behaviour of academics, whether we like it or not. We should not forget that these developments in academia have also done many good things, including spurring internationalisation. But according to many critics, the developments have gone too far and have been too simplistically managed. Now, widely debated concerns about academic integrity appear to have restarted thinking on this situation. 

In the summer of 2013 a ranking was published that measured to what extent universities were any good at knowledge valorisation. Unsurprisingly, universities which are able to create entrepreneurship among students and staff scored high. For law and criminology departments valorisation lies predominantly in different activities. Therefore, we have to resist the urge to rely on oversimplifying an overrated ranking this time. It is crucial to realise that societal impact is much more than simply transferring bits of knowledge at the end of a research project to a wider audience.

Valorisation is not primarily about output. Valuable impact can only be reached by interaction in all stages of the research process. It takes time and trust to invest in networks outside academia that stimulate societal relevance. In that respect, the interest in knowledge valorisation is indeed good news for disciplines that were once good in knowledge valorisation- avant- la- lettre. Yet it also requires another way of working and probably more differentiation and more patience within academia, which goes much further than changing a standard on paper.  Let’s hope the time is right. As criminologists know, integrity concerns can sometimes be a very good starting point for structural changes in organisations.

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