Capturing the impacts of funded research 

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council gets results into the community

By Karen Herland

SSHRC President Chad Gaffield addresses the researchers involved in the Capturing Impacts project. Magnifying glass

SSHRC President Chad Gaffield addresses the researchers involved in the Capturing Impacts project.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the ivory tower stereotype is the suggestion that the research done at universities is entirely detached from reality. Neither researchers nor society likes the thought of the research results gathering dust on an academic shelf or languishing, unaccessed, in cyberspace.

Four years ago, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) turned to 17 researchers across the country and asked them to focus their considerable skills on “Capturing the Outcomes and Impacts of Publicly Funded Research.” The aim was to find ways to better measure the impact, and communicate the results of the social sciences and humanities research it funds.

Effectively translating social science and humanities research results in policy that contribute to intellectual, economic, cultural, social, technological and environmental well-being of Canadians, as well as improve program planning and decision-making, as required, is what topples the ivory tower myth and provides additional impetus for the research SSHRC has funded.

“This project is useful to understand the importance of what we’re doing,” said Arts and Science Dean Brian Lewis, whose team participated in the initiative by developing a theoretical framework for evaluating research networks. Robert Bernard, of Concordia’s education department, was also among the researchers involved.

The researchers from across the country who participated represent a variety of disciplines. They conducted studies ranging from the micro (how successfully were research results on individual projects transferred? What factors contributed to that success?) to the macro (Catherine Beaudry of the École Polytechnique de Montréal evaluated the production of biotechnology and nanotechnology papers across the country).

Each year over the past four years, SSHRC has taken advantage of Congress to bring those 17 researchers together to share their findings. On June 3 and 4, they met with representatives of other funding bodies like NSERC, Industry Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, FQRSC and FQRNT to review the results of their work.

SSHRC President Chad Gaffield acknowledged in his opening remarks that research headlines “tend to put an accent on discoveries in the lab or the next new gadget.”

Less evident is the role of the social sciences and humanities in promoting those discoveries, or in facilitating their adoption.

Those words were echoed by SSHRC Director of Corporate Performance and Evaluation Wayne MacDonald, “today’s stories [in the press] - H1N1 vaccination campaigns, oil disasters, G8 leaders’ meeting, food security, womens’ health, aboriginal issues - are as much about social science and humanities’ concerns as any other field of research.”

Brian Wixted, one of the authors of the discussion paper that framed the two-day conference and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology, pointed out “the social sciences are about behavioural issues.”

“Behind every headline in the Globe and Mail are five or six research studies,” said Gaffield.

The findings of the Capturing Impacts initiative suggest that building knowledge transfer into projects from the outset tends to be a better model for ensuring that results are widely transmitted. In an informal discussion at the beginning of the conference, the importance of Open Access publishing for reaching a broad audience was also raised.

Many of the researchers pointed to the need to examine other measures of research excellence.

“We’re looking at that question right now at Concordia,” said Lewis. “We have 10 core indicators for evaluation, and three supplemental ones. But, among the questions are ‘how to evaluate engagement with the community?’”

Similarly, text may not be the sole measure of research output, especially with a move toward funding research-creation.

“Here at Concordia, folks are leaders at many aspects of communicating research,” said Gaffield of the numerous digital and performance-based exhibits displayed during Congress. “The word-based method is giving way to more robust visual and acoustic forms.”

Developing ways to validate those alternative forms of research output, and providing incentives for work beyond publishing in academic journals, teaching and service, are among avenues of further study.


Concordia University