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Assessing the impact of applied research on communities
Dassah, Maurice Oscar
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Since 1992 the National Research Foundation and the Department of Trade and Industry, with support from industry, have been running a funding initiative under the auspices of Technology for Human Resources in Industry Programme (THRIP). This initiative provides funding to qualifying academics/researchers in South Africa's tertiary institutions and science councils to conduct research and development-oriented (or applied) research. This collaborative funding of applied research is geared to facilitating cross-transference of knowledge, skills and resources across academic institutions, government science, engineering, technology institutions and the industrial sector. It is also expected that research and project outputs will be commercialised to improve the competitiveness of South African industry in the face of globalisation and technological advancement. With public money spent on research projects of national importance, impact and value for money become Vitally important, hence the need for impact assessment. A non-probabilistic sample of 52 research projects in seven standard industrial classification categories or sectors conducted by 44 project leaders (who are academics/researchers) based in seven traditional universities, one former technikon (now university of technology) and three divisions of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, were assessed for impact. A non-experimental design was used, involving synergising the goal-attainment and side-effects evaluation models, and reinforcing them with two elements of causal tracing, temporal precedence and coherence, to facilitate attribution of benefits and impacts. THRIP's strategic objectives served as relevant indicators for impact assessment since projects' objectives co-terminate with them. In the context of the research, a definition of 'performance indicator' as "evidence of what has actually happened" was adopted, lending weight to project leaders' reports of projects' impacts. 'Success', defined in terms of projects' not only accomplishing their objectives, but also yielding value to beneficiaries and stakeholders, is posited as a possibly problematic term given that different stakeholders might have different criteria of judging it. Responses obtained from questionnaires administered to project leaders and industry partners' or sponsors' contact persons, the latter for triangulation, were analysed and categorised into four broad thematic areas: human resource development/intellectual, commercial/economic, social and technological. A number of findings emerged from the main questionnaire. A little more than half (56%) of the projects were completed and 44% were ongoing; majority (85%) were implemented according to plan; three categories of primary beneficiaries were cited by project leaders; projects were meant to address multiple problems/situations; they had multiple objectives; and majority (92%) were successful and made many impacts. Managerial strategies, supplemented by environmental and other factors, contributed to projects' success. Several reasons were offered for failure or inconclusiveness.