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Social science that improves people’s lives

Author:Emilia Aiello, Claire Donovan, Elena Duque, Serena Fabrizio, Ramon Flecha, Poul Holm, Silvia Molina, Esther Oliver and Emanuela Reale

This post was originally published by the Evidence & Policy blog on 17 March 2021.

We have re-issued the article that has already been published by the Evidence & Policy blog. We would like to express gratitude to the kind offer of the editorial board of the Evidence & Policy blog.

Emilia Aiello, Claire Donovan, Elena Duque, Serena Fabrizio, Ramon Flecha, Poul Holm, Silvia Molina, Esther Oliver and Emanuela Reale

Scientific research has the potential to improve people’s lives, but the translation of scientific evidence into social impact is not always easy. According to the Expert report of the European Commission ‘Monitoring the impact of EU Framework Programmes’, ‘social impact is the improvement of society and citizens in relation to their own goals (like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals)’. How can social science and humanities research achieve this?

Governments and society increasingly demand that scientific research demonstrates social impact and benefit. In this context, scientists are encouraged to reach out to their communities, share their research and its impact on people’s everyday lives, listen to communities and consider their research from the perspective of the people they serve. Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) research has been challenged in this regard and has been at risk of being eliminated from the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation ‘Horizon 2020’. In response, it is necessary to identify and promote the use of effective strategies for enhancing the social impact of research, so that it can inform evidence-based policies and the actions of professionals, citizens and civil society organisations.

Between 2014 and 2017, a consortium of nine universities and research institutions across Europe conducted the project IMPACT-EV ‘Evaluating the impact and outcomes of EU SSH research’, which was funded under the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme as a small- or medium-scale focused research project (CP-FP) to address the topic, ‘Evaluation, monitoring and comparison of the impacts of EU funded SSH research in Europe’. For this purpose, in IMPACT-EV we conducted case studies of projects in SSH that have been successful at achieving social impact, using interviews with researchers, online questionnaire and exhaustive desk research on projects’ documents. Our research, described in our Evidence & Policy article, ‘Effective strategies that enhance the social impact of social sciences and humanities research’, revealed six strategies that researchers can adopt to enhance the social impact of their research projects in SSH:

1. Articulating from the beginning of a project the objective of realising social impact and a strategy to do so. 2. Use of previous contact networks in order to build up collaborations. 3. Meaningful stakeholder involvement throughout the project lifespan. 4. Coordination between the research activity and stakeholders’ activity during the project duration. 5. Dissemination activities showing useful evidence and promoting public debate. 6. The achievement of political impact as a way to realise subsequent social impact.

These strategies show that social impact can be enhanced in different stages of the research process: from the beginning, in the project design and via the establishment of the research network (strategies 1 and 2); throughout the project, involving diverse and relevant stakeholders in the research process (strategies 3 and 4); and in the later stages of research, disseminating results in effective ways (strategies 5 and 6).

Furthermore, some cross-cutting issues are identified in the analysis of the different strategies. First, research with social impact is collaborative. Collaboration at different stages of the project and among different agents – within and outside academia – is a necessary component of success in achieving social impact. Second, a genuine participation of research beneficiaries that leads to social impact can be achieved by involving them in the co-creation of knowledge, or by including them in the dissemination strategy to communicate the project results. Third, already achieved impact (scientific, political or social) of research teams can be a lever for subsequent social impact through different channels, such as facilitating building expert academic networks, generating social improvements stemming from the policies influenced, or increasing the probability that citizens utilise the research results when they are aware of social improvements already achieved.

We argue that these strategies can help research teams in social sciences and humanities enhance its capacity to expand the uptake of their project findings by stakeholders, thus enhancing the project’s social impact. They can also contribute to the evaluation of research from the perspective of social impact, as the implementation of the strategies identified can be used as a measure of the likelihood of projects’ achievement of impact.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Aiello, E. Donovan, C. Duque, E. Fabrizio, S. Flecha, R. Holm, P. Molina, S. Oliver, E. and Reale, E. Effective strategies that enhance the social impact of social sciences and humanities research, Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X15834126054137.


Emilia Aielloa, Claire Donovanb, Elena Duquec, Serena Fabriziod, Ramon Flechac, Poul Holme, Silvia Molinaf, Esther Oliverc and Emanuela Realed

aHarvard University, USA bBrunel University London, UK cUniversitat de Barcelona, Spain dCNR-IRCRES Research Institute for Sustainable Economic Growth, Italy eTrinity College Dublin, Ireland

Image credit: Photo by Stephan Henning on Unsplash


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