Researchers must be made accountable for academic impact on policy

Researchers want their knowledge to be useful and practical, in policy for example. But this means that they must be accountable for the choices they make. Quite wrongly, this is not considered to be part of researchers’ core business. Researchers should put more thought into what kinds of impact are worth pursuing and whose interest they serve and fail to serve in research. This was the basic message in the inaugural lecture delivered by Esther Turnhout during her installation as a professor holding a personal chair at Wageningen University on Thursday 2 June. The full lecture can be watched at:

The choices made about what is to be researched and measured and how this will be done, affect the way in which certain problems are brought into the spotlight. Ecological research about nature, for example, is often based on scientific concepts such as species and habitats. As a result, policy tends to focus on protecting endangered species and their habitats. The term ecosystem services has become commonplace. The idea is that research should concentrate on the various services and functions of ecosystems, and that nature conservation must guarantee the sustainable production of these services. In other words, the choice between species or ecosystem services has implications for the way we see nature, what we consider important and how we need to protect it. So the choice of concept is actually political. “Nature conservation is far too important to leave choices like these to scientific researchers,” claimed the professor in her lecture The politics of environmental knowledge.

Which impact, and on whom?

Academic researchers want their knowledge to be put to good use and not simply filed away in a drawer. Science must have an impact. But researchers should think carefully about the type of impact they want to make, says Prof. Turnhout. “If they do not ask themselves this question time and time again, they are in danger of allowing their academic research to serve the interests of ongoing elites in policy and industry. The problems of marginalised actors in nature and society will simply be passed over.”


So it is important that academia takes responsibility for the choices it makes regarding which concepts they use and whose problems it decides to research. Conducting dialogue with non-academics is a good way of doing this. Current methods and ideas relating to this subject include citizen science and transdisciplinarity. The key is to ensure that non-academics are involved in the research throughout the process, from defining the problem and designing the research method, through to gathering and analysing the data. But in practice, academia still seems to be dominant, leading the way, controlling the facts and specifying the problems. On the whole, non-academics are merely recipients of scientific knowledge. “Although this constitutes a valuable step forward, it still doesn’t count as making yourself accountable,” says Esther Turnhout. Academics must create more room for exploring and maintaining contact with non-academics in order to fully understand the possible political implications of the choices they make.