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.

For enquiries, please contact the Project Lead, Dr Birgit Schreiber, at [email protected]

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