Making a difference


As Dean of Research at a ‘business university’, Alan Irwin gets asked many questions. But one in particular keeps coming back. In this month's column from CBS' Senior Management, he addresses the question of how the research at CBS benefits our society as a whole.


By: Alan Irwin, Dean (Research)

Imagine that I have been patiently itemising (ie boasting about) Copenhagen Business School’s research performance, this time to someone from industry or perhaps government. When I have finished with the publication statistics, academic recruitments, external research awards, placements of our PhDs and major collaborations, I can guess what is coming next:

‘That’s all very impressive, but does your research have any societal impact? Is there any evidence that it makes a difference in the outside world?’

My first response is usually to go large. Has there ever been a time when the knowledge and expertise of the social sciences (and the humanities too) have been in greater demand? How else will national and international challenges such as competitiveness, food security, and sustainable innovation be addressed? How else will we bring about the major social and organizational shifts required to tackle environmental change or global inequality? Does anyone still believe that good ideas simply spring from the laboratory onto the production line? We need economists, sociologists, marketing, IT and management scholars – and philosophers, historians and linguists - to help us find new ways of living and working in a fast-changing world. And we need our students to have a basic insight into social science in order to develop productive and fulfilling careers.

If that does not hit the mark, then there are other, more specific, arguments. Research provides the foundation for education and training. Without research it would be impossible to bring the best brains to Copenhagen, providing the engine for new social, economic and cultural possibilities from which we can all benefit. In areas as different as security policy, regional and economic development, the health sector, corporate strategy, transportation, urban planning and communication, social scientists are actively providing advice and expertise. Game, set and match!

And yet, I have to say, the question lingers. Meanwhile, one can hardly open a (these days, digital) newspaper or listen to a political speech without some mention of the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, promising new health treatments, environmental benefits or consumer products. As a researcher, I rejoice in the success of scientific colleagues – and as a citizen, I hope to benefit from better health care and the applications of new technology. But why is it that social science seems to find it harder to claim direct societal impact – and especially to make a persuasive case for our research ‘making a difference’?

Now let me quickly state that, even if I am allowed just to take CBS as a sample, there is no shortage of initiatives taking place: whether presentations to industrial and governmental bodies, industrial PhD projects, membership of boards and commissions, research collaborations or sponsored chairs and funded projects. And our ‘impact’ spreads well beyond industry and government to include the voluntary sector and civil society organizations, nationally and internationally. Our representation in the media is also substantial, including of course the digital world of blogs, Facebook and tweets. So how can it be that for many people outside the university world (and even within) ‘research with impact’ still means natural science and engineering?

One answer (and as a recent book by Simon Bastow and LSE colleagues underlines) is that the social sciences struggle with the model of ‘impact’ often applied to the ‘STEM’ subjects (ie Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Licensing agreements, patents, technology transfer, and research-based start-ups do not generally involve the social sciences. And the kind of ‘latest discovery’ with which journalists can fill a newspaper column does not usually cover sociology, management research or economics (but possibly should). Quite clearly, we need to employ better models of ‘impact’ which take account of direct ‘one-to-one’ linkages but also longer-term relationships, the broader influence of new ways of thinking, and the two-way flow of ideas between researchers and practitioners. Many social scientists have argued long and hard against the linear model whereby single inventions lead inevitably to specific innovations. The relationship between research and practice is much more complicated (and much more interesting). It would be strange then if we simply dusted off the old linear model and applied it to our own activities.

Another answer is more challenging to social scientists.  As the recent European Science Open Forum event in Copenhagen demonstrated, science communication is becoming ever more important. The associated Science in the City festival did much to bring researchers and wider publics together – and I was specifically proud of CBS’ contribution (great work, everyone!). But we need to do even more to strengthen the voice of social science.

I want to learn about spallation, synthetic biology and the latest cancer research, but I also want to hear about the social implications of such developments and about the new forms of organizational practice, the changing economic models, the inter-linkages between the public and the private sector, the citizen choices, the alternative social scenarios and the business possibilities according to which these developments will either prosper or fail. Let me say it bluntly. There is no necessary contradiction between ‘making a difference’ and research excellence.

So let us speak a little louder about the business and societal importance of our research work – and perhaps be a little more imaginative at the same time with regard to how we express this. I do not call for immodesty, linearity or the denial of complexity, but simply for a more open communication and documentation of what we do and why it is important. The UK-based Campaign for Social Science offers one good model of what I have in mind.

Will all this convince the external sceptics? I’m not sure, but here is a final thought. There is one large audience within our own institutions which is dynamic, open and highly influential. If we could get our students to make the case for social scientific research, then we can be reasonably confident about the future. Perhaps our ‘making a difference’ campaign should begin at home?


Bastow, Simon; Dunleavy, Patrick; and Tinkler, Jane (2014) The Impact of the Social Sciences: how academics and their research make a difference. Sage: London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, Singapore.

Campaign for Social Science:


The page was last edited by: Communications // 12/17/2017