Research consortia in the natural sciences have been increasingly funded with special positions for social scientists. These positions are typically filled to assess the potential social and economic impacts of the project and provide recommendations to the different partners involved. As a relatively new phenomenon, universities and consortium partners are still learning how to effectively leverage such newly created positions to fulfil their missions. Supporting entrepreneurial and engaged universities’ goals of making continuous improvement and creating significant impact in the world, these innovation researchers can serve a dual purpose of providing a “fresh look” in monitoring these ongoing research activities, while also facilitating the broader social and economic impact of these projects. This article provides guidance on the potential contributions of innovation researchers.
Funding agencies have become increasingly concerned about the impact of research, outside of traditional metrics such as the number of papers published and citations. For instance, in the Horizon 2020 grant by the European Commission, alongside excellence and quality of implementation, another criterion for selection is impact (Regulation EU 1290/2013). As such, scientists who want to receive funding must convince the reviewers of the tangible applications of their research. They also must explain the mechanisms by which they will disseminate their output to the wider scientific community and also industry.
Traditionally, academics fulfilled this dissemination goal by promising to publish papers, file patents, present in conferences, and hold workshops with practitioners. However, another promising approach to fulfil these goals is by creating specially funded PhD or postdoctoral positions in innovation. These innovations researchers are then integrated fully into these research consortia. They attend all the network’s training lectures, meetings and social events. Unlike their colleagues working on technical aspects in the laboratory, these innovation researchers explore a different perspective altogether – business and innovation.
Unlike their colleagues working on technical aspects in the laboratory, innovation researchers explore a different perspective altogether – business and innovation.
One example is the Marie Curie Innovative Training Network called FragNet
, where I was involved in. In this research consortium funded by the European Commission, 15 PhD students were hired by universities and industry partners to advance knowledge in a highly specialized field in the pharmaceutical sciences called fragment-based drug discovery. While 14 of these researchers were mostly working in the laboratory, a special position was made to study the innovation aspects. In a similar vein, my current postdoctoral researcher position at a business school has a similar arrangement. I am embedded in two research consortia (ATTRACT
and Science Mesh
) coordinated by CERN, but my group in ESADE Business School assesses the social and business aspects of these projects. As positions like mine become increasingly common, my experience could be a useful guide for future social scientists embedded in these large, complex science projects.
First, innovation researchers can help scientists reflect on the various factors shaping their practice. A typical research project for these innovation researchers involves observing how these natural scientists work first-hand to understand the various social forces invisibly affecting their work. By providing an outside view, innovation researchers can help see their practices and beliefs in a new light. For instance, practitioners of a field may hold certain unquestioned assumptions after working in the field too closely for a long time. In contrast, by employing unique tools in the social sciences including interviews and questionnaires, these innovation researchers can provide a fresh view of the field’s practices.
For instance, in my research, I performed a bibliometric analysis – using statistical methods to analyze thousands of articles – to revisit the development of the field we were studying (Romasanta et al., 2018). Such methods generated a renewed picture of how the field developed. Before, the outsized role that industry played in the field was commonly accepted by practitioners. However, the analysis showed that academia also played a complementary role in setting the field’s foundations. Only through the collaboration between the two would the field emerge.
Second, innovation researchers can play an active role in shaping the project and directing the efforts of the team. When a consortium gets funded, partners typically may have different ideas on what the end results would look like, though they may share the same vision. Innovation researchers may help in identifying areas where consensus has been established and help surface inconsistent opinions across the partners. These innovation researchers are in a unique position to support this as their task already involves interacting with individual project team members and external stakeholders including the university administrators, investors, industry managers and policymakers. By spanning such boundaries, these innovation researchers can better inform the consortia of the various issues facing them, including legal, ethical, social and institutional aspects.
Innovation researchers can better inform the consortia of the various issues facing them, including legal, ethical, social and institutional aspects.
Finally, innovation researchers can provide guidance to their consortia in their area of expertise – innovation. Embedded in business and innovation departments, these researchers are already up to date with the various trends in the competitive landscape and the appropriate models to frame these issues. Thus, they can add value to their peers by serving as consultants, guiding scientists on the challenges facing technology transfer and commercialization (Retra et al., 2016). Having a broad understanding of the specific technical challenges in the scientific domain and a deep grasp of the business challenges, innovation researchers are then able to provide relevant guidance to complement services traditionally offered by technology transfer offices. As part of their third mission activities, universities can then leverage such positions to help their faculty conceptualize of possible spin-offs or industry collaborations.
As policymakers continue to demand impact from funded projects, integrating innovation researchers would continue to be an appealing option for grant writers. These academics, aiming to win grants, should consider how such positions can help the consortium in achieving its objectives. The danger is that these positions turn into a window-dressing exercise so that projects can tick some bureaucrat’s checklist. More than being mere token positions, innovation researchers can make significant contributions not only to their research consortium but also to the different communities they are embedded in, including universities and businesses. Leveraged properly, they can ensure that research ends up truly making an impact.
Regulation (EU) no 1290/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 laying down the rules for participation and dissemination in "Horizon 2020 - the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014-2020)" and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1906/2006. Official Journal. L347, 90.
Retra, K et al (2016). Educating the science–business professional. Industry and Higher Education, 30(4), 302-309.
Romasanta, AKS et al (2018). When fragments link: a bibliometric perspective on the development of fragment-based drug discovery. Drug discovery today 23(9), 1596-1609.