Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - English


Knowledge transfer is one of the most strongly promoted science policy objectives. In addition to the traditional missions of "research" and "teaching", universities have a "third mission" to fulfill: to have an impact on society (Compagnucci and Spigarelli 2020). In connection with the “third mission”, several terms  circulate alongside knowledge transfer, such as technology transfer, innovation and societal impact with the last one referring to the social impact of science.

While in the early debates on knowledge transfer this was understood more as a unidirectional process of transferring finished knowledge, i.e. research results, to various actors in society, a concept of knowledge transfer is establishing itself in current debates that sees science in a stronger reciprocal exchange with society (Nowotny et al. 2001).

More recently, the concept of knowledge exchange has come to the fore. This emphasizes that the transfer does not only have to take place unilaterally from science to society, but can and should take place in both directions, quasi as interaction (Pohl et al. 2021; Olmos-Peñuela et al. 2014). The Berlin University Alliance also defines "Knowledge Exchange as a process of mutual exchange of knowledge between actors from the sciences and various areas of society such as politics, culture and business" (Berlin University Alliance 2023). The various terms all reflect the desire for the products and findings of scientific work to be socially relevant and to demonstrate their added value for society as far as possible. There is a danger here that science will only be geared towards current utility narratives and that scientific findings and scientific progress will be reduced to solving current social problems.  

For scientists, knowledge transfer can be an ambivalent goal. If this goal is addressed directly to them as a requirement, they must integrate it into their work alongside many other tasks. Depending on the research subject, this is easier for some than others (Janßen and Schimank 2019). While a high level of exchange with partners in various areas of society is plausible and to be expected in applied research areas, the situation is quite different in basic research. Due to the very different hurdles to integrating knowledge transfer into research practice, there is a risk, as with other science policy imperatives, that individual scientists will not be able to adequately implement the requirement and thus pressure will be placed on them that is neither appropriate nor targeted. Therefore, knowledge transfer could also be seen as a primarily organizational goal and not as the task of individual scientists.

The Berlin University Alliance (BUA) has the vision of developing Berlin into an integrated research area and strengthening cooperation both between the institutions and beyond (Berlin University Alliance 2023). The aim is also to promote multidirectional research and knowledge transfer (ibid.). In order to monitor this objective, the Berlin Science Survey (BSS) was launched to shed light on the changes in research culture and research practices in the Berlin research area from the perspective of science research. In this report, the exchange of knowledge between scientists in the Berlin research area and society is analyzed in depth. Based on the analysis of the current situation, existing potentials are identified in order to intensify the exchange of knowledge. 

The basic assessment of the Berlin Science Survey has already shown that the relevance of the individual research areas for various non-scientific areas of society varies, but is rated quite highly overall. Across all subject groups, only a few respondents state that their research is not relevant to any non-scientific area (Lüdtke and Ambrasat 2022a).

This focus report examines the topic of knowledge transfer in depth on three levels. At the level of practices, we look at the extent of the exchange between scientists and non-university actors. How do scientists assess the relevance of their own research for society? Where is there (still) potential to intensify knowledge transfer or exchange? In terms of attitudes, the question is how scientists assess the relationship between science and society. In their opinion, how autonomous should science be in relation to societal demands? To what extent should scientists be involved in political debates? Last but not least, we look at how the respondents see the Berlin research area in terms of knowledge transfer opportunities and whether there is a need for support.

This report answers these questions using data from the pilot study of the Berlin Science Survey (Lüdtke and Ambrasat 2022b). 1,098 questionnaires from scientists from the Berlin research area who were surveyed in the winter semester 2021/22 were evaluated. For this survey, two comprehensive instruments were developed to survey transfer practice and the attitudes of academics towards science and society. To record transfer practice, it was determined whether and with which social groups the scientists are in contact. In order to be able to contextualize the exchange appropriately against the background of very different research objects, the scientists were asked in advance for which social groups their own research is actually relevant. A newly developed instrument for surveying knowledge transfer enables a very detailed description of the quality of exchange processes. It is used to determine in which phases of the research process an exchange with non-scientific actors takes place. The survey instrument makes it possible to distinguish between knowledge transfer downstream of the research process, which also includes (pure) scientific communication ex post, and more intensive knowledge transfer, in which the exchange takes place during or even before the research process.

In order to capture the attitudes of scientists towards the interrelationship between science and society, we focused on the following three central areas: the autonomy of science in relation to the social benefits of science, the participation of female scientists in political debates and the scientific-philosophical question of the properties of scientific knowledge.

The report examines and discusses all sub-topics relevant to the topic of knowledge transfer with regard to possible differences between the status groups, between the subject groups and finally also between the gender groups. These three important structural variables are intended to consider the diversity of the scientific community.

The hierarchical classification of status positions into professors, postdocs and predocs does not merely reflect the employment relationship and career position. The position is also associated with a specific portfolio of tasks and roles in research and teaching. It is also an indicator of a researcher's academic experience and resources such as time, money and power.

A second central structural variable is the classification by subject, whereby the analyses here are differentiated according to the subject groups humanities, social sciences, life sciences, natural sciences and engineering. The subject affiliation shapes the researchers through routine work processes, institutional conditions and, last but not least, through a subject-specific understanding of science and science. However, even within a subject group, there are sometimes very large differences in the specific working and research conditions. Differences between subject groups therefore only provide (initial) indications of the diversity of research contexts. We therefore attempt to capture additional differences in the research contexts by including some epistemic characteristics of research (cf. Gläser 2018).

The distinction between male and female researchers is also relevant in the context of knowledge exchange, as it is known from network research that there are gender-specific differences in the establishment of networks (Lutter 2015). Such differences can play a role in the initiation of exchange relationships, for example.

The report first examines the general significance of the topic of knowledge transfer in the Berlin scientific community - especially in relation to other topics funded by science policy (Chapter 2). Next, the scope and potential of knowledge transfer in the Berlin research area are examined (Chapter 3). Attitudes towards the relationship between science and society are then examined (Chapter 4) and placed in relation to the research contexts and transfer practices (Chapter 5). Finally, the framework conditions of the Berlin research area are assessed with regard to knowledge transfer potential (Chapter 6).

The focus report on cooperation can also be downloaded here.