Valorisation: researchers do more than they realise

By Leonie van Drooge and Stefan de Jong | reading time 8 minutes

Researchers are asked to contribute not only to science and to have an impact on science, but also to contribute to society and to have societal or economic impact. The official name used for this process of contribution to society in the Netherlands is valorisation. However, not many people have a clear idea what valorisation entails. Researchers do engage in valorisation more often that they are aware. Policy-makers often do not know what valorisation means in practice. 

Researchers from the Rathenau Institute have had countless discussions on the topic of valorisation in recent years, and have been giving training courses and workshops on valorisation. The results of these activities are summarized in the present e-publication.

The following four main topics are covered:

1. Valorisation: a host of definitions, but fortunately there is a common denominator

Many different definitions of valorisation are in use. For example, the Dutch ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) focuses on the valorisation process and on diversity in its definition, while the ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ) stresses the importance of this process for industry. The Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) and the Association of Dutch Universities of Applied Science (Vereniging Hogescholen) are developing valorisation indicators. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) includes in knowledge utilization (its term for valorisation) the exchange of knowledge, data and insights with researchers from other academic disciplines. The Standard Evaluation Protocol (SEP) concentrates on social relevance, and the KNAW is developing indicators in specific sectors.

Valorisation is the process of creating value from knowledge by making knowledge suitable and/or available for economic and/or societal use and translating that knowledge into competitive products, services, processes and entrepreneurial activity.

This definition encapsulates the meaning of  valorisation concisely and effectively, and has been used by the Dutch government since 2009. The ministry of Education, Culture and Science deleted the word “competitive” in 2011.

The multiplicity of definitions would seem at first sight to make it impossible to discern any generally applicable meaning of the term “valorisation”. However, closer inspection shows that all these different definitions have a number of features in common.

Valorisation:
•    is a process
•    aims at enhancing societal impact in the widest sense of the term
•    is possible in all different disciplines
•    can occur in many different forms

In other words, valorisation is an interactive process and not a simple kind of linear leapfrog. It aims at both economic and societal impact, and can be tailored for each individual discipline. The oversimplified motto “Skills and know-how mean more cash in the till” (“Kennis, kunde, kassa”) only tells a small part of the story.

For further details, see definitions and policy.

2. Learning from examples

The above considerations make it clear that valorisation takes many different forms. We could discuss its essence at length, but the best way of increasing our understanding is to consider practical examples. We will present a number of examples in this e-publication, divided into three different categories: target group, practice and knowledge.

Fighting windmills
A group of concerned citizens approached the scientific shop at the University of Groningen in 2006, with complaints about the noise made by the big wind turbines that had been erected in the province of Groningen. Researchers and students from the university studied the regulations concerning the use of wind turbines, and the models constructed to predict their behaviour. They discovered that the models had been developed for low wind turbines, and failed to give an adequate prediction of the noise nuisance generated by tall turbines. The authorities corrected the model.

In the above example, the target group is a pressure group. There are many different target groups for valorisation. For example when the objective is to produce a remedial educational guide for parents and social workers who have to deal with difficult teenagers, a voting guide for voters who have trouble choosing between the various parties or an IT help manual for physicists.

IT help manual for physicists
The software of the CERN Large Hadron Collider just outside Geneva was behaving erratically in 2011. CERN’s own programmers were unable to track down the problem, and called in the help of IT specialists. Jeroen Keiren, a researcher from Eindhoven University of Technology, examined the control software and came up with a solution. This was a win-win situation: Keiren got the opportunity to try out his system security models in practice, and CERN got a more stable system.

* * *

When scientists discuss their research, they often seem far from day-to-day reality. Nevertheless, a closer look at all that abstract research often reveals a host of practical examples.

A cure for itch from potatoes
Immunologist Jon Laman from the University of Groningen has been studying perianal dermatitis, an unpleasant form of skin irritation for which no cure was known. He developed a soothing cream that helped to alleviate the symptoms of this complaint. This cream contains high levels of protease inhibitors – and it just so happened that AVEBE, an international company with headquarters in the north of the Netherlands that produces a wide range of products, all derived from potatoes, could supply these protease inhibitors. A cooperative set-up is born.

This example illustrates how research can help to improve an existing situation in practice. The impact of research on practical situations can take a host of different forms. For example, a researcher created a picture book featuring big, strong, smart heroes to introduce preschool children to the concept of a healthy diet. An expert in the history of the Mayas used an exhibition, a book and a series of interviews to rebut the commonly held belief that the Mayas had predicted the end of the world. And a professor of text design and communication helped banks, insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers to reflect more constructively on their product information, brochures and letters with the aid of workshops and a variety of cooperative projects.

* * *

Researchers valorise, or translate or transfer, many different kinds of knowledge in many different ways. Valorisation is not restricted to resent insights and results alone. Sometimes, use of the right presentation structure can be very illuminating when very large amounts of knowledge and insights are involved.

The birth of the kingdom of the Netherlands
The Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) in The Hague has developed a (Dutch-language) website entitled ”The birth of the kingdom of the Netherlands” (“Koninkrijk in wording”) to celebrate the bicentenary of the creation of the Dutch state. This website does not restrict itself to the provision of factual information, but also teaches visitors to view their own history the way historians do.

While scientists tend to be experts in one particular (sub)field in a discipline, some of them can speak with authority on a wider range of subjects of interest to the general public. Several examples of this may be found on Dutch television. For example, Middle East expert Bertus Hendriks from the Clingendael Institute in The Hague is a regular guest on 1Vandaag (a current affairs programme on Dutch national television ), while historian Beatrice de Graaf from Utrecht University has appeared on the talk show De Wereld Draait Door (on Dutch national television) to explain the background of terrorist attacks. Yet another example is the brain scientist who is the resident expert on the TV programme The National IQ Test.

National IQ test
Margriet Sitskoorn is professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at Tilburg University. She also plays a key role in the Dutch TV programme The National IQ Test. She explains difficult concepts and shares basic psychological knowledge with viewers, participants and presenters, thus helping to disarm prejudice and elucidate what IQ tests actually measure.

Researchers amass a wealth of knowledge and insights over the years, and can share this expertise often and in widely differing ways – for example as a remedial teacher with a supervisory role in the field of youth care, or as a computer scientist who is helping to set up a spin-off company.

Click here for further examples taken from practice.

3. How can valorisation be organised?

All these examples are very interesting, but how can you set up a reliable procedure to transfer knowledge generated by research or some other activity?

It all starts by formulating a vision, which answers such questions as what is the purpose, what do you want to do, what do you want to contribute to, for whom, with whom, how? 

Questions that form the basis of the vision:
What is the purpose
What do you want to do?
What do you want to contribute to?
For whom?
With whom?
How?

But a vision alone is not enough. Valorisation is a process. Something has to happen.

Researchers are not alone in this. They may get support from valorisation or knowledge exchange centres, grant officers or technology transfer offices. And just as university departments, faculties or institutes may make agreements about teaching, research and managements, agreements can also be made about valorisation. For example, some institutions have developed a special valorisation track.

Valorisation track
Gerard Pasterkamp, professor of Experimental Cardiology at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht, came up with the idea of the following valorisation track in 2013: “We don’t just evaluate our researchers on the basis of the number of publications they produce and the impact of these publications, but we also consider what they have done to make the results of their research usable for society. Good researchers who don’t produce quite so many publications, but whose results lead to clinical applications that companies are interested in must also be able to advance in their career and possibly become professors in due course.” Prof. Pasterkamp has also made a film clip on this topic, in Dutch with English subtitles, entitled ”Wat betekent uw werk voor de samenleving“(What does your work mean for society?).

Many researchers already work together with social partners or with research groups from another discipline. This sometimes occurs in the slipstream of the research, sometimes because social partners express an interest in it and often simply because researchers enjoy this way of working.

What matters in the final analysis is that research groups know what has already been done to transfer knowledge of their work, and that they investigate what can be done to make things even better. Then, of course, they need to have the necessary support, tasks need to be assigned and – last but not least – they need to get the necessary recognition.

Read more about organising valorisation.

4. The Droste effect: researching valorisation

The process of valorisation  is subject of academic research as well, for example at the Rathenau Institute (and to take this one step further, the present e-publication is an example of valorisation of this research into valorisation). A few noteworthy results of research into valorisation are presented below.

  • Researchers often have the idea when it comes to valorisation, that they will be assessed on the basis of the financial earnings from  their research. Nevertheless, they generally choose from a range of activities those with the most promising perspectives for valorisation, no matter whether it actually generates income or not.
  • Knowledge can be exchanged through direct or indirect contacts between researchers and the end-users of that knowledge. Direct contacts include personal contacts, for example via membership of a committee or a consultancy. Indirect contacts may come about through a publication aimed at users such as a commentary , a treatment protocol or a textbook, or through an artefact or activity such as a prototype, an exhibition, a procedure or a film.

Evaluating valorisation: focus on interactions, not on the final effect

This approach has three advantages:

  1. It makes it clear to researchers, policy officers and board members of universities which investments and efforts researchers make to ensure that their knowledge has societal value.
  2. It reveals the nature of the valorisation process leading towards impact.
  3. It helps to solve time and attribution problems involved in evaluations.

 

  • Many researchers in the social sciences and humanities have informal links with knowledge users. Experience shows that these informal contacts are often neglected, though they do play an important role in valorisation.
Informal cooperation
There may be various reasons to set up informal cooperation. One reason is shortage of funds. That was the case when a team of anthropologists carried out a neighbourhood study in the vicinity of a former prison. 
Sometimes no new research is needed, but researchers simply feel that this form of cooperation serves a useful purpose, for example when a linguist participated in a forensic study. 
And sometimes such links grow out of years of research, as when a group of musicologists and musicians collaborated in a study of Spanish musical scores.

  • Contrary to widespread belief, contract research, popularization and contributing to societal practices are no barriers to excellence.
  • Patents play only a very limited role in knowledge transfer. An exclusive focus on patents, even in fields where they are important, leads to a restricted and fragmented picture of the overall impact knowledge can have in practice.
  • Paying out a bonus for effective valorisation will only motivate very few researchers. A policy aimed at encouraging valorisation, on the other hand, will be much more effective.
  • Involving researchers in policy development – that is, making use of expertise or research results for policy – can be done in many different ways. The choice of approach here will depend on the degree of consensus in the policy field, among other things.


Read more about research on valorisation, and view the list of references.

In conclusion

Valorisation. When researchers from the Rathenau Institute say that they are working in this field, they get mixed reactions from scientists and policy-makers. Some don’t seem to be very interested. Others ask hopefully if we can explain what the objectives of valorisation policies are. 

Some frequently asked questions were: What is valorisation exactly? Can you give us some examples? How can it be organized?

We have observed during the many talks we have had with researchers, and the training courses, workshops and strategic planning or brainstorming sessions we have led, that many people only have a very vague idea what is meant by valorisation. Many researchers are involved in het process of valorisation,  but are unaware that they actually are. We have heard countless researchers exclaim in the course of our discussions in recent years, “Oh, is that valorisation?”

This e-publication from the Rathenau Institute is an attempt to answer the questions: What is valorisation? Can you give us some examples? How can it be organized? In fact, most of the answers given here come from the people who have shared our discussions or taken part in our courses. Many thanks for your input!

We hope that this e-publication will help the scientists and policy-makers who read it to view valorisation as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Also read:

Colophon

This e-publication is an initiative of the Rathenau Institute in the context of the projects “Knowledge transfer as a process” and “Knowledge transfer in the social sciences and humanities”.

Authors: Leonie van Drooge and Stefan de Jong

Web design: Herbert Boland

Figures: reproduced with the permission of the interviewees and of Wikimedia

This publication should preferably be cited as: Leonie van Drooge and Stefan de Jong. Valorisation: researchers do more that they realize - e-publication with examples and guidelines for knowledge transfer. The Hague: Rathenau Institute, 2015.

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