Many scientists have no idea what valorisation is

Scientists, and not only those in the social sciences and humanities, think that valorisation is mainly about economic profit. This is what Stefan de Jong writes in his PhD dissertation. His advice: spread knowledge about valorisation; that way it’s facts that determine the valorisation debate, and not anecdotes and gut feelings. PhD defence on 10 September.

Different types of valorisation

De Jong makes the point again: there are countless types of valorisation (currently also referred to as impact), and these are not just patents, spin-off companies and licences, as many researchers believe, but also software, consultancy work, courses, post-academic teaching, exhibitions, websites, books, demonstrations and media appearances. Academics often fail to recognize the contributions they and their fellows make to society. The most effective channel for valorisation depends on the research, the researcher and the other parties involved.

Influence of Margaret Thatcher

To make the context clearer, De Jong describes the process of valorisation in terms of the client (the government) and the supplier (academia). The government, as the provider of the funding , makes certain demands of academia, one of which is to transfer knowledge for the benefit of society. In 2004 the then Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Maria van der Hoeven, defined valorisation as one of the core issues in scientific policy. It was a new type of public management, that had blown over from Great Britain, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced free market thinking into the public sector; the scientific institutions are an exponent of this principle.

Intermediaries always look for balance

NWO and KNAW have increasingly acquired the role of intermediary between the government as client and academia as supplier; they translate the government’s policy into scientific practice. The boards of the universities also have a similar role. The intermediaries have to serve two bosses and are consequently always looking for the right balance: if they play too much to the tune of the government, people become suspicious of their motives. This is a particular concern for fundamental research, where the benefits for society are generally not forthcoming in the short term.

Too little vision, no strategy

The lack of knowledge and an excess of emotions make it difficult to develop an individual and a collective vision of valorisation, let alone devising a valorisation strategy, comments De Jong. There is still a long way to go, and he believes that the intermediaries can play a key role here: they have to gather and disseminate the information on valorisation that academics need so that a good discussion can get under way.

Assessment based on the process

De Jong raises another issue. In his opinion, there are so many factors, including outside the world of science, that play a role in valorisation that researchers cannot be held exclusively responsible for the societal benefits of academic research. He believes that, in assessing the valorisation of science, the emphasis should not be on the results, but on the process, on the efforts that researchers make to allow society to share in the results of scientific research. De Jong has developed and tested a methodology for such assessments.

Four sub-projects

De Jong carried out four sub-projects in his research. First he organised six focus group meetings with 53 researchers and ancillary staff in different disciplines. In the second study he looked at 170 projects in two large climate research programmes: were they organised such that societal benefits were possible? In the third study he examined four projects in computer sciences to learn how valorisation works in practice. The fourth study focused on the evaluation of valorisation. He developed a methodology for this and tested it in the construction industry and the legal field. He also tested his ideas and findings in numerous discussions with the different people involved, from researchers to civil servants at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and from policymakers to financiers.

What next?

De Jong’s dissertation is in itself an example of valorisation, or at least a step in that direction. He wrote his dissertation at the Rathenau Institute, but now works at Luris, the valorisation institute of Leiden University. ‘I will be organising workshops at the University on such themes as: How can you actually valorise science? How can you emphasise valorisation in subsidy applications? I also want to get across the message that valorisation gives added value and meaning to all science.’ He can do a lot within Leiden University but he also thinks it’s important that people in strategic positions are aware of his research. There is some interest in the subject, from the VSNU and from the Ministry. ‘At the start of my biology programme I was already asking myself: What use is this? I asked the question out loud, in the lecture room. And I also thought about how I could fulfil a bridging function; that was the subject of my thesis. The ambition to valorise is in my blood.’

In the first week of September De Jong and Leonie van Drooge of the Rathenau Institute will launch a website about valorisation where scientists can find a lot of practical and useful information.

(1 September 2015)

Read more

Last Modified: 02-09-2015