Cultures of Evidence series 3: Research with social impact and the Spanish case
By Emilia Aiello, Department of Sociology, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (email@example.com)
and María Vieites, University of Barcelona (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dialogue between academia, politics and society has been an ongoing challenge at an international level. In the case of Spain, the disconnect between citizenship and the creation of scientific knowledge and its use in public policy was exacerbated by the hierarchical and authoritarian character that the dictatorial regime (1939-1975) instilled in social organisations, including academia. The following lines analyse how universities and public policies have been progressively oriented towards incorporating scientific evidence of social impact co-constructed with citizens.
Although present across all scientific disciplines, hierarchy and hermeticism have had a comparatively more significant impact on how Social Sciences & Humanities (SSH) were developed and institutionalised in Spain. Historically, Spanish academia has been disconnected from the interests of the citizens. The people have perceived academic institutions as feudal and closed entities. The democratic transition in the country in the mid-70s brought about a change of people and a diversification of political options but maintained structural flaws.
It was not until the early 2000s when the European Commission-funded EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation catalysed the launch of a reform process of the Spanish Academic System, which was concluded in 2009 under the Rodriguez-Zapatero Government. Not without some controversy, this reform made it possible to slowly institute a meritocratic system of academic selection and promotion of professors. Among its traits, three aspects can be highlighted:
- First, the intention to advance towards academic excellence like other European and international academic systems (for instance, creating mechanisms to encourage researchers in Spain to apply for EU funding and thus collaborate with their European and international peers).
- Second, the introduction of a system of evaluation of scientific impact taking into account, among other things, scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals.
- Third, in 2018, the approval of what has been named the “Evaluation of transference” [“Sexenio de Transferencia”, six-year term transfer], with the aim of capturing and recognising how researchers and academics are transferring their scientific knowledge to society.
This shift in the path of Spanish academia is in line with what has been coined by sociologists Marta Soler and Ramón Flecha as the “Dialogic turn of social sciences” (“Europe Must Fund Social Sciences”). In Spain, there are now research and policy references that have managed to overcome the challenges of this lack of dialogue between academia, politics and citizenship. This has been possible thanks to the development of the area of “research with social impact”, based on three decades of study on how to achieve scientific, political and social impact (“Achieving Social Impact. Sociology in the Public Sphere”).
From dissemination to scientific evidence of social impact
A core output of this research has been the elaboration of evaluation criteria to identify and capture “social impact”. This has been led by Flecha and published by the European Commission in its “Monitoring the Impact of EU Framework Programmes”. Here, the distinction between what is known as Dissemination, from Transference, Social Impact, and, eventually, from Scientific Evidence of Social Impact is crucial. This was initially developed by the FP7 IMPACT-EV project, out of which the Social Impact Open Repository (SIOR) initiative emerged (See the short piece published in the “Sources and Resources” section of Evidence & Policy in 2017).
This work also guides how to design and implement research to achieve social impact. Drawing also on the work done in IMPACT-EV, another piece published in Evidence & Policy in 2020 (Effective strategies that enhance the social impact of social sciences and humanities research), develops and provides examples of six strategies that can contribute towards this, namely:
- Articulating from the beginning of a project the objective of achieving social impact and defining a strategy to do so.
- Implementing meaningful stakeholder involvement throughout the project lifespan.
- Using and capitalising on previous contact networks to build up collaborations.
- Achieving close coordination between research activities and stakeholders’ activities during the project’s duration.
- Carrying out dissemination activities showing evidence of social impact and promoting public debate.
- Defining achieving political impact to realize subsequent social impact.
Dialogic evidence-based policy
The research emphasis on scientific evidence of social impact has also reached pioneering public policies that would be framed as “Dialogic evidence-based policy” (DEBP). As we have explained elsewhere: DEBP is the result of a two-step process: the dialogic creation of evidence, that is, involving all stakeholders, including policymakers, not only in identifying the most socially relevant matters to be addressed but also in the elaboration of scientific evidence; and the inclusion of this evidence in the policymaking process as a request of citizens themselves. Therefore, DEBP is committed to putting the existing evidence of social impact at the citizens’ service and co-create that evidence with them.
Three examples of research with evidence of social impact which has informed the elaboration of DEBP can be mentioned briefly. First is the Integrated Plan for the Roma People in Catalonia (Generalitat de Catalunya, since 2006), whose design and implementation drew on the open dialogue between the Roma people and the scientific community. Second, in the field of education, the “Successful Educational Actions” (SEAs) identified by INCLUD-ED (FP6, 2006-2011) as educational practices that contribute the most to overcoming inequalities, fostering inclusion, success for all, and social cohesion, have been already promoted by local, regional, and national governments in eleven European and Latin American countries. An example of how the Portuguese Ministry of Education has scaled up these actions in a dialogical way can be reviewed here. Finally, in the field of gender violence prevention, another example is the Spanish and Catalan Laws of Gender Violence. In this case, the 2004 Spanish law on Gender Violence did not incorporate the violence that happens outside stable sexual-affective relationships. This was corrected by the 2008 Catalan Law, including the violence that occurs in sporadic sexual-affective relationships as a type of gender violence. This modification was, once more, informed by scientific evidence on what is known as ‘preventive socialisation of gender violence’, a solid line of research developed through egalitarian dialogue with citizens.
Therefore, in Spain, there are clear examples of research and policies that are marking the shift towards a culture of evidence based on social impact. A social impact that leads to an improvement in the lives of citizens and builds with them the evidence of these improvements.