'Knowledge for change: Getting our Research InsightS out'

1-year anniversary Research InSightS in DevISSues
Juba camp, Sierra Leone
Juba camp, Sierra Leone
Samantha Melis

Research InSightS was launched a year ago as the ISS platform to share knowledge based on ISS research. To celebrate its 1-year anniversary, this article describes how InSightS came into being as part of ISS’ ambitions to contribute to social justice and a more equitable world.

The International Institute of Social Studies prides itself on the societal relevance of its research. In 2017 an external committee classified ISS’ research as world leading/excellent in terms of relevance for society,1 noting that there is a ‘deep commitment across the Institute to linking quality research to critical social and economic issues’. While our academic community is highly diverse - comprising researchers engaged in a combination of fundamental research, applied research and ‘scholar-activism’ – it is united in its pursuit to study, understand and examine responses to critical challenges related to global development and social justice. The ambition to engage in societally relevant research is intrinsically motivated and forms a key part of ISS’ DNA but is now further reinforced by extrinsic drivers.

The drive for impact

Societal relevance and impact are playing an increasingly important role in institutional research quality assessments. ISS academics are engaged in an interesting internal2 conversation about this, including what societal relevance means, how it relates to impact and how relevance and impact in research are determined. One of the issues raised was whether societal relevance and impact ‘always go hand-in-hand’ or whether ‘research can be societally relevant without making an impact?'3

The two are not the same; one could reasonably argue that research can be societally relevant without making an impact. But this evokes the question whether striving for societal relevance is enough. Or does an institute like ISS – with a mission to contribute to social justice and a more equitable world – have the obligation to actively strive for its research to contribute to change and have impact?

‘Not only is it important to ask questions and find the answers, as a scientist I felt obligated to communicate with the world what we were learning.’ – Stephen Hawking

ISS sits at the intersection of academia and international development. Within both sectors impact sits high on the agenda, with accountability as a common driver. Within international development, actors funded by donors generally need to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work. Meanwhile, universities - often recipients of public funding – are under increasing pressure to ensure that their activities are in touch with society and responsive to societal challenges and needs. Erasmus University Rotterdam, of which ISS is a part, is no exception and has taken up the challenge, given its current Strategy 2024: Creating Positive Societal Impact.

But both sectors also seem to be wrestling with impact. Generating impact, whether through research or development projects, is anything but simple and straightforward. In addition to complex definitions and their interchangeable use, it is also challenging to develop appropriate theories of change or impact pathways and to meaningfully measure impact (not least due to the attribution challenge). Focusing on academia, impact-oriented research requires dedication, hard work as well as a different modus operandi, while the environment is not yet conducive. In that regard, a welcome development within the Dutch context is the Recognition and Rewards initiative which aims to also develop a career profile for academics around societal impact.

Sharing Research InSightS for change

While the impact discussion is complex and work in progress, what is definitive is ISS’ commitment to producing solid, societally relevant research that has ‘the potential to drive action’ (ISS Strategy 2018-2022: Energized, Embedded, Engaged). So how can ISS as a development studies institute maximize the societal relevance and transformative potential of its research?

The most important part of the answer relates to research design and execution. For example, researchers can engage in dialogue with research partners and participants to gauge whether the research responds to societal needs and make adjustments as necessary. A second and related part of the answer is concerned with effectively sharing and discussing the research and its findings throughout the research process. After all, how can ISS-generated research drive action if other actors – including potential allies in ISS’ quest for social justice and equity - are not aware of its existence?

To facilitate this, Research InSightS was launched to make knowledge grounded in ISS research accessible and available to others. Though its content may speak to academic communities, InSightS was developed for communities beyond academia such as civil society organizations, NGOs, policymakers, citizens and others that are interested in or working on global development and social justice.

Research InSightS provides a glimpse of the multitude of research initiatives at ISS and shares key findings. With accessibility as a fundamental principle, each item presents the most important information from a research initiative in a bite-size and non-academic format. So, no academic papers, but findings that are translated into videos, infographics, one-pagers, policy briefs, interviews and research briefs amongst others.

insight [noun]: a clear, deep and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem or situation’ (Cambridge dictionary)

A quick scroll through Research InSightS reaffirms how closely ISS research links to contemporary social, environmental and economic challenges, both globally and locally. It covers a broad variety of topics, such as oil pollution in the Amazon, degrowth, migration, wellbeing of migrants in the Netherlands, sexual and reproductive health and rights, humanitarian aid, frugal innovation and more.

By sharing knowledge, InSightS is part of ISS’ efforts to produce societally relevant research that can drive action.

Strategies and realities

Though research accessibility is important, effectively positioning research for use necessitates coupling this with well thought-through strategies that give careful consideration to functionality and timeliness. It requires greater scrutiny of ‘fundamental questions such as who the knowledge produced through the research reaches, at what time, and with which purpose’.4 Early identification and integration of clear change objectives into the research process is key, as is early engagement of targeted audiences so that the strategies are fit-for-purpose.

Simultaneously, we also need to acknowledge that change is a highly complex and non-linear process that involves a multitude of different actors with their own interests. For example, who says that knowledge, even if and when it reaches those in decision-making positions, will be directly used to inform policy and practice? Sometimes the accessibility of research - no matter how rigorous or timely - is not the problem. Because research uptake is not only a matter of facts and reason; it’s also a matter of power and politics.

Power and politics of knowledge

The famous Latin phrase ‘scientia potential est’ means knowledge is power. Yet there is ample evidence that producing and emitting knowledge on its own does not necessarily bring about change. However, when combined with action and partnerships, knowledge might stand a better chance.

So we need to think about what we must do ‘to make our commitments to a more equitable and sustainable world real’ and about how we can ‘best collaborate to co-generate and mobilize evidence in ways that ultimately make a difference to people’s lives’, as suggested by Professor Melissa Leach.5

As a graduate school for critical social science, it suits us to also look critically at ourselves. For example by being ‘humble about our own assumptions and positions’ (ibid), by acknowledging the ‘politics of knowledge’ and by reflecting on powerful and thought-provoking questions that relate to both the critiques of academia in the ivory tower as well as to the decolonization discourse. This includes questions such as whose knowledge we are talking about, how that knowledge is produced (including the potential existence of ‘academic or cultural snobbery’) and whether we are potentially replicating existing power inequalities and/or further intensifying growing segregation in society.

Struggling in solidarity

Producing research that meaningfully contributes to social justice and equity is challenging, and the complexity may even be daunting and discouraging at times. But if we are truly in solidarity with those who are left behind and truly committed to contributing to global development and a more equal world, we will appreciate that often ‘change comes through continuous struggle’ (Martin Luther King Jr) and not shy away from struggling ourselves as we reflect upon and determine how we as an engaged institute can best play our part.


  1. This was part of a research quality assessment (RQA). RQAs are executed every 6 years in line with the Standard Evaluation Protocol developed under the auspices of the Dutch Academy for Sciences, the Dutch Research Council and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands.
  2. Huijsmans, R. and E. Mills (2019) ‘What determines societal relevance’ ISS blog BlISS, 10 January 2019.
  3. In the blog post, societal relevance was defined as ‘the quality or state of being closely connected and appropriate’ and impact as ‘a noticeable effect or influence’.
  4. Hilhorst, D., L. Swartz and A. Ceelen (2021) ‘Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research’ ISS blog BlISS, 13 February 2021.
  5. Leach, M. (2021) ‘Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality’ ISS blog BlISS, 9 February 2021.


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