UCT’s Dr Linda Mtwisha calls for a national research impact assessment system

29 September 2023 | Story Gillian Anstey. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 6 min.
Dr Linda Mtwisha
Dr Linda Mtwisha

Dr Linda Mtwisha, the executive director of research at the University of Cape Town (UCT), said that it’s imperative to develop a national research impact assessment system where information on research outputs can be collected so that universities that don’t have adequate resources and research capacity are not disadvantaged.

The Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town (UCT) is one of seven interdisciplinary research entities and 89 accredited research groupings of UCT undertaking research with socioeconomic impact.

Such impact includes having protected 31 000 children from losing the Child Support Grant while the team of seven researchers continues to produce an average of about 21 peer-reviewed publications annually, said Dr Linda Mtwisha, Executive Director: Research at UCT.

Dr Mtwisha was speaking on the topic, Towards assessing research and innovation impact at a university level: the UCT journey, at the Research and Innovation Dialogue, held in Umhlanga on 21 and 22 September. She was part of a panel discussing Research and Innovation Impact at the Dialogue.

Dr Mtwisha said the Children’s Institute showed how “at UCT we don’t take social responsiveness or engaged scholarship as a separate stream. It’s fully embedded in teaching and learning and research activities. And I think that’s why we’ve seen such good quality research impact cases”.

She added that although the Faculty of Health Sciences, by nature of its clinical research responsive to societal needs and policy, has stood out for its impactful research, UCT’s research impact stories are not widely known inside or outside the university.  They are working on improving this because it hinders collaborations.

She said more and more researchers at UCT are conducting impactful research beyond the institution’s academic boundaries, even though this approach is not formalised within the institution. Because scholars are not adequately recognised or rewarded for it, research impact is under reported internally.

Massive transformation purpose at UCT

UCT is committed, nonetheless, to positioning its academics to contribute to challenges within society, said Mtwisha. This is underpinned in UCT Vision 2030: unleash human potential for a fair and just society.

“We not going to be able to realise it on our own. It’s a massive transformative purpose which requires partnerships across the sectors of the economy, within the continent,” she said. And it’s a long journey mapped with challenges, she said.

As such, they were deliberating on:

  • what defines impact in research;
  • how can UCT measure impact beyond bibliometrics; and
  • how to make the new ways of accessing research part of their foundation. 

Impact is not divorced from high quality research

UCT is increasingly focusing on engagements about research impact. Starting in 2018, they have had several conversations where they invited parties from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and representatives from government and industry to collaborate and understand its implications for what they do.

She said it was important to highlight that socioeconomic impact, with outcomes such as technical reports, patents, policy briefs, and changing behaviour in society, “does not take away from high-quality academic products such as peer-reviewed papers. We are seeing cases where these two outcomes are happening hand in hand. It’s not ‘either or’, but ‘and’,” she said.

UCT and policies

She listed a string of policies that UCT has aligned itself to. The Research Data Management Policy (2018) that “really set the tone at UCT” because it “indicated the seriousness with which we are embracing research impact”.

In 2019 UCT stated its support for the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which recognises the need to improve the ways in which researchers and the outputs of scholarly research are evaluated.

One problem is that because these are guidelines, they are adopted inconsistently, although some have made them part of their promotions processes. “It’s a cultural thing. Until it’s a policy, people are going see it as a nice-to-have, but we are working on it,” she said.

UCT has established a committee that is defining what research impact is in the context of UCT, and how they will measure it.


She said as the NRF implements its framework for social and knowledge impact, it could possibly extend impact to its ratings “because it might help researchers to extend how they evaluate the impact of what they do”, she said.

Assessing impact is time consuming, research intensive and resource intensive, said Mtwisha. “We need to consider developing a national research impact assessment system where we are able to collect all this information on research outputs, and impacts at a systemic level so that universities that don’t have adequate resources and research capacity are not disadvantaged,” she said.

“This conversation really excites me, because it brings the opportunity for South African universities to consolidate and have evidence for areas where they are making an impact. This will facilitate and encourage collaborations among us in a way that we will have even greater impact in responding to national priorities,” said Dr Mtwisha.

This story was first published by Universities South Africa

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