Research is supported through public funding because of the belief that it can help solve society's grand challenges. The legitimacy of research increasingly depends on it being useful. However, whether research is sufficiently utilised in all the sectors of society where it is needed, remains an important unanswered questions. A perceived lack of use leads to a critique of research organisations and questions about whether their activities and culture sufficiently promote and facilitate impact. This critique does at times seem to lack a solid foundation, and many of the important preconditions for impact may be beyond the immediate influence of the researchers. In OSIRIS we investigate and analyse impact from the perspectives of societal stakeholders and the users of research - groups we have far less systematic information about.
OSIRIS looks at how research produces effects in society beyond the direct interaction between research organisations and stakeholders. We refer to this as impact, and in OSIRIS we study the complex process of research impact within health, economic development and policymaking. These areas are chosen to cover different types of impacts and to be able to look at all scientific disciplines. We carry out multiple investigations of users' interaction with research and researchers, how they use research in their work and their capacities for doing so, and how research results are processed further.
Impact is a central and very complex science policy issue, and the knowledge and methods are fragmented. We bring together teams with specific expertise to develop original tools and perspectives to yield new insight and help science policy actors and research users to understand the conditions under which impact happens in different societal sectors. TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture is the host of OSIRIS. TIK is an internationally leading unit for studies of research and innovation. Our Norwegian partner Statistics Norway is an expert on measuring economic effects, while the foreign partners from the University of Manchester and the Polytechnic University of Valencia represent global expertise within research evaluation and impact studies.
Preliminary results from the OSIRIS project's surveys, interviews and other data collection shows that there is a great interest in using research in many organisations. At the same time, we find that use of research is rarely very systematic and characterised by informal forms of contact like asking a colleague or searching after research online. OSIRIS research identify several framework conditions for organisational use of research, such as incentives, individual competences and established routines for gathering external knowledge. Open access may also be important here: academic institutions argue strongly that this is a central mechanism for generating more or better impact. Many research units experience pressure to demonstrate their wider impact or utility, perhaps industrial R&D units in particular. The lack of good indicators and lack of traditions for moving beyond cost-benefit or return on investment analyses is often a considerable challenge.
Based on our investigations, we have popularised four metaphors for how research generates impact. The first we call the reservoir, where the publications and perspectives from research constitute a potential that can be realised when needs and challenges emerge. Second metaphor is cumulativity or “stone upon stone”, which indicates that single projects and results rarely generate impact on their own, but that societal effects more often emerge from many small events and repeated interaction. Third metaphor is problem-solving, denoting that research sometimes provides solutions to problems, but can perhaps more frequently offer improved understanding of solutions appearing from elsewhere and thereby help processes like risk reduction, diffusion and scaling up. Serendipity is the fourth metaphor – research does not always lead to the expected results and may sometimes generate completely new and unplanned opportunities, where meeting places and strong users are likely to be important for later impact. The fifth metaphor is economic, expressing that research is an investment that ideally should provide more returns than the resources spent on it. This perspective dominates in many science policy organisations, and even if it is legitimate to require a return on large expenditures, this way of thinking might create barriers for more systematic work tied to the other four metaphors or perspectives.
OSIRIS is a research centre for the study of research impact hosted by TIK, University of Oslo and with SSB (Oslo), MIOIR (Manchester) and INGENIO (Valencia) as partners. The centre represents a unique integration of different scientific fields and expertise. OSIRIS aims to understand how investments in research and innovation by private and public organisations lead to societal and economic effects in a broad sense. This is a major question for research, which despite much interest has failed to find adequate solutions. One reason is fragmented research efforts with little knowledge accumulation, another is the complex ways that research makes an impact, making it challenging to study. OSIRIS is based on the belief that a long-term, longitudinal and interdisciplinary approach is necessary to capture multiple kinds of impacts and impact pathways. Our research questions are oriented at identifying impacts, at understanding underlying conditions especially within user communities, at highlighting differences between fields, and at designing efficient policies.
Impact studies require in-depth knowledge of the process through which research and scientific knowledge is produced, exchanged, absorbed and utilised by different kinds of stakeholders, and the characteristics and conditions that influence this process. We seek to identify multiple forms of impact within health, economic development and policymaking through user surveys and interviews, longitudinal case studies and other mixed methods. Integration across different approaches is facilitated by a close-knit centre structure based on an open science model emphasising knowledge circulation and exchange, joint training of the next generation, and interaction with stakeholders at all stages of the research process.