Study on social innovation in research

Scientists are not only interested in theoretical questions, they also want to find solutions to society’s problems. This is shown by a study on the effects of SNSF-funded research.

Distributing refugees throughout the country using a newly developed algorithm so that they can find work as quickly as possible in their new location, or understanding the health risk from noise more precisely and thus being able to better regulate it: these are two examples of research results that have a direct impact on our everyday lives. Innovation doesn’t just happen in technological and economic terms, it also has a social dimension. This is the case, for example, when it enables new perspectives, when there are regulatory changes, or when actual behaviours are altered. The SNSF sought to investigate this concept of social innovation in more detail. It wanted to know to what extent the research it was funding was having an impact beyond the purely scientific domain. To that end, it commissioned the Austrian-based Center for Social Innovation (ZSI) to conduct a study.

A two-phase study

The study was conducted from 2021 to 2022. A total of 361 researchers leading an SNSF-funded project agreed to participate in the study. As a first step, they filled out a questionnaire asking them about their own assessment of their project’s impact. Key questions included why they had chosen a specific research topic and which actors outside academia played a role in their project. To better understand how the projects may have led to innovations, the ZSI conducted in-depth interviews with 56 researchers and their practice partners in a second phase.

Improving real-life practice

For the majority of the researchers, the aim right from the beginning was for their work to have an impact that goes beyond science. For example, they want their findings to broaden perspectives in political discussions. Another aim of scientific projects is to improve real-life practice in hospitals, schools and other important areas of society.

The study has shown that, for an increased impact beyond academia, it is particularly important to actively involve practitioners. This transdisciplinarity means that researchers from different disciplines work with groups of stakeholders directly affected by the issues being studied. These could, for example, include patients or administrators. Another finding of the study is that the more important it is for researchers to solve specific practical problems, the more transdisciplinary their work tends to become.

Exploiting the full potential of research

However, the study also makes it clear where the challenges lie. The SNSF funds basic research first and foremost. These research projects seldom deliver solutions that are directly applicable in practice. Up to now, the researchers have mainly contributed indirectly to innovations by improving the overall understanding of complex problems.

Exploiting the full potential of research is one of the SNSF's priorities for the multi-year period from 2025 to 2028. To strengthen the exchange between researchers and non-scientific actors, researchers should be offered advice, for example in the form of mentoring. The BRIDGE funding programme, conducted jointly with Innosuisse, has supported the broader exploitation of scientific findings since 2017. It is to be given an even broader positioning and its offering geared to more social innovation.