Linking modes of research to their scientific and societal outcomes. Evidence from 81 sustainability-oriented research projects

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Sustainability-oriented research has increasingly adopted “new” modes of research promoted under labels such as ‘post-normal science’, ‘mode 2 knowledge production’ or ‘transdisciplinarity’, aiming to address societally relevant problems and to produce ‘socially robust’ knowledge by involving relevant scientific disciplines and non-academic actors into the research.

We present the results of a comparative quantitative analysis of 81 completed sustainability-oriented research projects, coupled with an in-depth study of six projects, to empirically investigate the assumed connections between research modes and societal and academic project outcomes.

Statistical analysis suggests that contributions from practitioners in early phases of research projects positively influence certain societal and practice-relevant outcomes. By contrast, including non-academic actors and practitioner knowledge into research negatively impacts academic outputs and citations, indicating a trade-off between academic and societal impacts. Yet projects which apply structured methods of knowledge integration score generally higher on academic outputs and citations. Moreover, the funding context affects both research mode and research outcomes. Finally, practitioner involvement negatively affects completing of PhD projects.

Findings from the in-depth study reinforce a trade-off between the societal and academic impact of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary sustainability-oriented research. We find that projects which had a double research objective on academic and societal outcomes but which did not specify how to realize both, neglected either the academic or the societal impact during the research process. Moreover, we find that a well-designed combination of disciplinary as well as inter- and transdisciplinary project phases helped projects to meet both demands.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science & Policy
Pages (from-to)147-155
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 01.11.2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
In this study, we combined comparative analysis of 81completed sustainability-oriented research projects (large-N study) with six in-depth case studies (in-depth study) to empirically investigate the assumed connections between research modes and societal and academic project outcomes. The sample comprises projects with a substantial social science share funded by the two major German research funding institutions. These are the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Studied projects cover a wide spectrum of research modes, ranging from basic research that is barely interdisciplinary to highly inter- and transdisciplinary projects including a variety of extra-academic actors in different project phases.

Funding Information:
The performed t-test shows with a significance level of p = 0.06 no differences in the mean of Goal_achievement between projects in the mission-oriented funding context (BMBF) and bottom-up funded projects (DFG).

Funding Information:
We would like to thank the members of our advisory group, Antonietta di Giulio, Rico Defila, Michael Pregernig, Arnim Wiek and Michael Stauffacher, for their constructive and valuable feedback in early stages of this research; the German Research Foundation for providing the funding for the research project “Modes of sustainability-related research in comparison (MONA): Modes of research and their impact on scientific and societal project outcomes” under grant numbers NE1207/4-1 to Jens Newig and LA3024/1-1 to Daniel J. Lang; staff from the German Research Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research for their support in preparing the data collection; project heads, researchers and practitioners involved in the investigated sustainability-oriented research projects for providing us with project documents, as well as for participating in a survey and semi-structured interviews; our student assistants Marie Josefine Hintz, Marie Weiß, Marion Blome, Sophia Schönig, Maria Brück, Silke Bölts, Alina Langkau, Franziska Steinbrügge, Jakob Wondra and Inga Melchior for their long-term and outstanding support with regard to data collection and data editing in preparation for this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Authors