Why isn’t social entrepreneurship spearheading scientific and technological innovation? (2/2)
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Why isn’t social entrepreneurship spearheading scientific and technological innovation? (2/2)

In this previous article, we saw that social entrepreneurs and scientists can create fruitful research partnerships. 

However such projects remain rare. The majority of social entrepreneurs find it difficult to work with the research sector.

Why is so?

Many structural defects

In France, the research and innovation strategy around the social and ecological transition has mainly revolved around communication. In 2017, the #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain initiative of President Emmanuel Macron made a lot of noise. In the end, it only funded 42 researchers at best. That is not much for one of the most important issues of our century. Since 2017, has the approach on the matter changed?

In 2022, the French government announced its wish to create 100 French unicorns by 2030. They added: “because startups have a role to play in the ecological transition, let’s set another goal: 25 green unicorns by 2030!”. A green “25” sticker was put on the poster. The sticker very much resembles those “100% recycled” ones you can find on shampoo bottles. They are there to reassure the consumer, but rarely reflect a deep change in the product. As for the “green unicorns”, you will find nowhere the criteria to abide by to qualify as one.

Unfortunately, our guess is that this is not due to a lack of transparency, but to a lack of consistency. It is highly probable no one actually knows what is a green unicorn and which criteria will be followed.

Let’s dive deeper in the issue:

  1. Support and investment strategies and mechanisms do not include the social and environmental dimension in the criteria grid used for rating and funding research projects. Social impact is perceived as a positive externality of science projects, but it is not what sets the creation of research consortia in motion.
  2. The research world has little to no understanding of the concerns of civil society actors on the field. “Localized research on an issue specific to a territory or carried out by civil society, is of little interest to classic funders of research because the knowledge generated is less universally applicable” reminds us Lionel Larqué, Director General of Alliance Science-Société (ALLISS)*.
  3. Teams inside knowledge transfer offices and innovation department at universities are very well versed on economic return on investment. They mainly have to answer to economic policies, and do not know how to integrate the societal impact on society. The economic KPIs exist: economic growth, job creation, spin-off creation. The social KPIs are non-existent, or not well-known, and therefore the societal impact is not measured.
  4. Finally, the evaluation of research does not encourage researchers to develop research collaborations in partnership with civil society, says Christophe Roturier, Delegate for Science in Society at INRAE*. In France, the multi-annual planning which guides research budgets until 2030 does not mention (and therefore does not encourage) collaborations with citizens and civil society (NGOs, social entrepreneurs).


Collaboration with the research world is now almost impossible if you are not a major industrial player. Funding rules are not adapted to social entrepreneurs who want to invest in science and the barriers for scientists to collaborate with them are very high.

Concrete actions to speed up change

Tackling social and environmental challenges through research will not happen just through good will and a public announcement. The research and innovation system has to favor collaboration with society, including social entrepreneurs, and integrate social and environmental criteria to the evaluation process.

Several initiatives and frameworks already exist to bring the research sector and the social entrepreneurship sector closer together. Some are led by research performing organization, such as the Innovation Campus for the Planet at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), the Societal Impact community launch by the CEA, the D-Lab at MIT or Tech4Impact at EPFL.

Others are led by third players, such as our multi-actor open innovation programs “The Future Of” specifically designed to address societal issues through research partnerships. These programs were recognized by the UN as a Good Practice for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), proving that these initiatives can already be very much structured and efficient.

These new frameworks allow academic players to do research and innovation differently by putting societal issues at the heart of the mindset and by launching research partnerships with civil society actors.

Now, are these approaches scalable? Or are they doomed to stay marginal?

Pressing challenges such as climate change forces us to rethink our innovation model. The social role of universities is being challenged and new ways for them to interact with society are needed. We therefore envision that these initiatives will spread. They already started to.

A change in public policies to establish new norms would be necessary to simplify these new research partnerships. However, it will take time. In the meantime, allowing engaged players to organize themselves in concrete actions is possible. Scientists, in the private and public sector alike, can start right away to:

  • enroll in trainings to learn more about social impact and how to integrate it in their grants applications
  • organize these discussions inside their lab
  • start to change their lab organization, both to decrease the environmental impact of research and to redirect their skills and research project towards solving the challenges ahead of us
  • participate in collaborative research programs with civil society actors

That’s what we want to make possible and easily accessible with the SoScience platform. We aim to give all research and innovation players willing to engage in collaborations with societal impact the tools and ressources to do so : training, opportunities, call for applications, networking.

What additional features would help you in that journey?

*during the Summer University of the Impact France Movement in 2020.

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