Synthesis | Recognition and rewards, transparency and trust

Science and impact

This is the second series of stories about entrepreneurial scientists. The stories in the first booklet were both very different and yet strikingly similar, and the same can be said about these stories. Once again, the scientists come from different disciplines and universities, are in different phases of their career and fulfil different roles. For instance, besides being scientists, they are also entrepreneurs, administrators and/or chief impact officers. Some are involved in startups or work with existing companies, whereas others have chosen very different approaches.

The scientists in the first booklet were connected by the self-evident manner in which they combined science and entrepreneurship, focused on using their knowledge and worked with and for people. This golden thread runs through this second series of stories too. However, what stands out in the stories of the scientists in this booklet, is that clearly not everybody – in their surroundings as well as in wider society – feels that it is natural for scientists to strive to achieve impact.

One possible explanation for this is that we often use the term impact in a ‘narrow sense’, limited to developing and applying technological solutions (products, services) for major societal issues. Impact is, of course, broader than that. Every scientist creates impact but achieves that impact along different ‘routes’. Route one, training a new generation of talents for science and society is perhaps the most important of all. The second route involves increasing our knowledge base, and the third route involves applying that knowledge to create societal well-being and prosperity.

Furthermore, these routes do not exist independently of each other – they are inextricably linked and different types of impact frequently occur together and emerge from the same (research) activities. Knowledge enriches us as individuals, organisations and society both literally (prosperity) and figuratively (well-being). We should therefore draw two extra lessons from the stories in this booklet: the need to recognise and reward impact, and the importance of transparency and trust in realising impact.

Recognition and rewards

Fortunately, our entrepreneurial scientists are increasingly being recognised and rewarded for their research and the impact they achieve with it. It is not for nothing that ‘Recognition and rewards’ has become a special programme of the knowledge institutions and research funding bodies UNL, KNAW, NFU, ZonMw and NWO. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of work still needs to be done to convince fellow scientists and (the rest of) society that creating impact is not to the detriment of ‘pure’ science but rather a benefit for and of that science. Consequently, impact is not something that scientists should be rallying against, but something they should seek to reward instead.

That starts with getting rid of the apparent contradiction between science and impact, which do not arise or exist independently of each other, but in symbiosis, as Kitty Nijmeijer shows. In her work, research into applications with/for companies leads to both new and better solutions for practical issues, and gives rise to extremely interesting questions for fundamental research as well. Education and research also overlap each other, even if this is just the outcome of the fact that a PhD programme results in new knowledge as well as in the training of a new scientist, both of which are forms of, and conditions for, impact. After all, as Tanja van der Lippe rightly points out, it is the people you train with that education and research who go on to change the world. A thought that inspires Davide Iannuzzi to wonder whether the ultimate goal of universities and their knowledge and technology transfer organisations should be maximising impact along whichever route.

Making the contributions of science to societal well-being and prosperity more explicitly visible will not only help scientists to value that impact, but also to recognise and acknowledge the value of science itself more and to help to get young talent interested in science and impact. As a result, the increased recognition of impact can simultaneously lead to more status, room and money for science, as well as more interest in science.

Transparency and trust

Our entrepreneurial scientists all feel a responsibility to not only make an impact but to do so as transparently as possible. For example, by sharing knowledge with everybody and by, as a role model, engaging with a growing number of different target groups, which is something that Margriet Sitskoorn does so well. But they also realise that transparency helps to prevent (apparent) conflicts of interest or can help to solve these relatively simply. The stories in this booklet again illustrate that conflicts of interest are usually feared more – often without a real reason – than that they actually occur in practice.

If we recognise that the interests of scientists, institutes and entrepreneurs can come together harmoniously and frequently even coincide with each other, then we will no longer need to try and control an inherently dynamic and chaotic process like innovation with rules and procedures. Perhaps we can turn around the principle often attributed to Lenin: ‘trust is good, control is better’, and instead make it ‘control is good, trust is better’. Let us trust that (almost) every scientist has the best intentions, and let us value each other for the impact that we strive to realise – in whatever form – and give each other the room and assistance to find the right way forward.
However, that entails reminding each other of the need for complete transparency and the willingness to engage in a dialogue if differences in opinion or potential conflicts arise. If we can achieve this, entrepreneurial scientists that follow in the footsteps of Rebecca Saive and Hedderik van Rijn will no longer need to go against the tide to realise impact. And time, energy and public resources could – as Berend van Meer hopes – be invested more in realising impact faster and better than in preparing and assessing proposals.

The stories in this booklet are once again intended to inspire readers and initiate reflection and discussion instead of merely offering conclusions. This booklet seeks to be a catalyst and not an endpoint. If these ‘thinkers who do’ also cause you to reflect and inspire you to share your own or other peoples’ stories, examples, insights and ideas as part of a broad discussion about science and impact, then this booklet will have succeeded in its goal!

Read the interviews with the entrepreneurial scientists here