Incentives for Conducting Societally Impactful Research

Exploring the incentives for and barriers to conducting societally impactful research in the Southern African Development Community is a research and engagement project funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre. The project will run from February 2024 to April 2025.


Demands for higher education institutions (HEIs) to produce societally impactful research have been
part of higher education, science and innovation policy and funding discourse for some decades
now. This has seen the integration of ‘service’ or ‘community engagement’ as a core university
function; the emergence of the ‘engaged university’ model; the development of partnerships
between HEIs, business, industry, policymakers and communities; and the emergence of research
designs and methodologies geared towards optimising the relevance and uptake of research for and
by beneficiaries or end-users.

The complex and interrelated economic, environmental, geopolitical and technological polycrises
facing societies today are prompting even more fundamental shifts in academic practice: an
increasing emphasis on collaborative, transdisciplinary, systems thinking research; the co-creation of
project designs and knowledge production with stakeholders beyond academia; and the
decolonisation and democratisation of knowledge production, among others.

Project focus

At the heart of this project is the question: how do the norms, organisational cultures, and reward and recognition systems of HEIs in SADC countries incentivise and enable, or disincentivise and constrain, researchers in the conduct of societally impactful research? However, incentives for and barriers to the conduct of societally impactful research are not only the product of institutional factors. They are also generated by national higher education policies, research agendas, research assessment practices, and regulatory frameworks; research funding criteria; and the scholarly and disciplinary requirements of academic publishing. Employing a research and innovation ecosystem lens, a second question explored by this project is thus: how do these incentives and barriers to the conduct of societally impactful research play out in the interrelationships and dynamics between the different actors, institutions, policies and practices in the research and innovation ecosystems in these countries?

Project outcomes

Using a combination of empirical (desk research and mini country case studies) and engagement activities (a community of practice and stakeholder engagement workshops), the key outcome of the project will be the formulation of a proposal for a forward-looking action research agenda that will address:

  • How national and institutional reward systems could be adapted to better incentivise researchers to engage in societally impactful research, including a specific focus on issues of gender, equity and inclusion.
  • How other dimensions of the ecosystem would need to adapt in order to accommodate such national/institutional shifts; and
  • How government stakeholders in the SADC region and international research funders could incentivise, encourage and support positive change within these systems.

Project advisors

Mzime Ndebele-Murisa has a background in freshwater ecology. She is currently a Program Specialist at START International, an NGO that works at the interface of science, policy and practice in the developing world. Here, she managed the Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands (FRACTAL) Program (2018–2021) and currently coordinates the Education Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) Africa network and co-leads capacity building in the Cascading Climate Health Risks in African Cities (CASCADE) project. Prior to joining START, she was a senior lecturer, programme coordinator and deputy dean at Chinhoyi University of Technology, and she also worked as a research fellow at the University of Zimbabwe. Mzime has coordinated several multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects in Africa focusing on aquaculture, climate change impacts, and adaptation such as the SADC Aquaculture Mentorship Program, Climate Impact Research Capacity, and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE), and the WorldFish’s Developing and Scaling of Sustainable Feeds for Resilient Aquatic Food Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (FASA) project. Mzime has over 40 publications, with contributions to the IPCC’s AR5 and AR6 Working Group II as well as a Climate-Smart Agriculture Manual for Education in Zimbabwe. She holds a PhD in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, a Master of Science in Tropical Resource Ecology, and a BSc Honours in Biological Sciences from the University of Zimbabwe.

Dr Marirajan Thiruppathi holds an interdisciplinary PhD in community governance and resource management and is currently serving as an Associate Professor and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Unicaf University in Zambia. His cutting-edge research in the areas of sustainable livelihood, community governance, exclusion of marginalised communities, fisheries management, traditional knowledge, climate vulnerability & resilience and sustainable agriculture has been published in more than 30 peer-reviewed books and journals. He is a well-known educationalist with a background in action research. In his role as a research supervisor, he oversaw eight master’s students and one doctorate student, helping them to produce effective research results. He taught social work and sociology courses at the diploma, degree and master’s levels as part of the teaching and learning process. In collaboration with local, national and international intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, he has engaged in action research, development and outreach initiatives. He provides training, curriculum development and programme accreditation consulting services to universities and non-profit organisations. He also serves as an active member of editorial boards, an external examiner and an adjunct professor for numerous organisations and institutions.

Prof. Chipo Plaxedes Mubaya is currently leading the Internationalisation and Strategic Partnerships portfolio for the Chinhoyi University of Technology, where she is also Associate Professor in the Centre for Development Studies. In her former role, Chipo coordinated international student recruitment, both national and international partnerships as well as student and staff exchange programmes for the university. In the latter portfolio, she was engaged in transdisciplinary research through multi-stakeholder engagement projects. Chipo holds a PhD in Development Studies from the University of the Free State in South Africa and an MSc in Social Ecology from the University of Zimbabwe.

For enquiries, please contact the Project Lead, Dr Birgit Schreiber, at

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