Tagged / social sciences

The Public Value of the Humanities

Demonstrating the public value of research will be a significant part of the forthcoming REF exercise. Most major funding bodies now require an impact statement as part of the application process. Universities are being required to demonstrate that their research offers value for money and tangible benefits outside of the academic sphere. This is easier in some disciplines than others, with many people believing the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) will struggle to demonstrate impact.

The Public Value of the Humanities, recently published by Bloombury Academic and edited by Prof Jonathan Bate (University of Warwick), demonstrates how the AHSS discplines can demonstrate that their research has public impact, benefit and value.

For a full review of the book see the review on the THE website.

You can buy this book on Amazon.

Engaging Academic Social Scientists in Government Policy-Making and Delivery

Prof Martin Kretschmer, Professor of Information Jurisprudence and Research Centre Director for CIPPM in the Business School, recently attended a meeting organised by the British Academy and the ESRC on Engaging Academic Social Scientists in Government Policy-Making and Delivery. Here he provides an overview of the issues discussed at the event…

Making research relevant to policy is on the agenda of all Research Councils, as reflected in the Impact measure of REF 2014. The event was co-sponsored by the Government Heads of the Analytical Professions: Government Economic Service, Government Operational Research Service, Government Science & Engineering, Social Science in Government, and the Government Statistical Service. The programme and list of attendees is available here: British Academy event programme and delegate list

Some of the issues raised, and questions asked of the attendees included:

Q1: What do you think government should be doing more of to increase the influence of your research and expertise on government policy making and delivery?

Q2: What do you think the academic social science community should be doing more of to have a direct influence on government policy making and delivery?

Q3: What might encourage you to consider an advisory role to government, for example, as a social scientist on one of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committees?

I assume I was invited because I am just coming to the end of an ESRC Public Sector Fellowship in the UK Intellectual Property Office (within BIS). I also sit on the government’s Copyright Advisory Expert Group, and speak frequently on policy issues, for example last week (1 June) at a Hearing in the European Parliament on The Future of Copyright in the Digital Era

Below, I summarise a few points from the meeting that may be useful for the wider BU research community.

Prof Nick Pidgeon (Professor of Environmental Psychology, University of Cardiff, and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group) offered 4 routes to influencing government:

  • Government contract research, including small review contracts.
  • RCUK (or similar) funding in policy relevant area.
  • Advisory Committees.
  • Indirectly, via dissemination through Royal Society, RSA, or similar.

Paul Johnson (Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies): “Don’t expect to change government policy if your evidence points in a different direction.” There are two choices: EITHER Focus on points of detail within the policy direction given by government, OR Set agenda for 5 years hence.

Sir John Beddington (Government Chief Scientific Advisor) stressed the tightrope walk between advice that is a “challenge” and being labelled “unhelpful” (in Sir Humphries language). Academics should risk “challenge” even if it turns out to be “unhelpful”.

Prof Philip Lowe (Professor of Rural Economy, University of Newcastle, and Director of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme): There is a paradox – How can a government department become a sophisticated consumer of research? Commissioning good research requires being able to know what you don’t know. Hard for civil servants and politicians. Important to build and sustains links over many years.

Prof Helen Roberts (Professor, General Adolescent and Paediatrics Unit, University College London, and non-executive director of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence NICE): Public sector placements are very useful, both for academic and government, but governance of these grants can be cumbersome. [I can confirm that from my own secondment experience. At some point, there were suggestions that detailed delivery contracts would have to be drawn up between ESRC and BU, ESRC and BIS/IPO, BIS/IPO and BU. In the end, I was simply shown the Official Secrets Act, and the Code of Conduct for Civil Servants, and that was it.]

Importance of human dimension: “Most implementation comes though good relationships, not good research.”

Sharon Witherspoon (Deputy Director of the Nuffield Foundation, and in charge of research in social science and social policy): Most policy advisors double in “empirically informed counterfactuals”, and are normally grateful if offered help with: “What would happen if…” But academics can often make the most telling contribution by more radical reflection: “I wouldn’t start from here”. Governments are less likely to be open to that kind of challenge. Select Committees are becoming more independent of government (now have elected chairs). They can be a route to influence.

Paul Doyle (CEO, ESRC): The ESRC is building a database of government policy leads/contacts. Often it is impossible from government websites to identify the civil servants and special advisors dealing with specific policy issues. Government scientists should be encouraged to become members of Learned Societies.

 Key points from the open discussion:

  • Importance to keep independence by constructing portfolio of funders.
  • Economists are a separate breed in government. They have little concept of wider social research.
  • Responding to consultations is often a good first step to engagement.
  • Academics should use less jargon, shorter sentences.
  • Visual representation of research findings matters greatly.
  • Often it is useful to invite policy makers to academic events. They enjoy coming out of the office, and are less partisan/circumspect in a neutral environment.
  • There is an important corrective function for social scientists in assessing the presentation of data.
  • Difficulty in presenting the audit trail required for REF Impact. Government does have no interest in revealing the sources of its ideas, or it may be politically inconvenient to do so.

Sneaky and dishonest?: Covert research a much maligned, forgotten jewel in the crown

Prof Jonathan Parker, School of Health and Social Care, reflects on covert reseach methods and their use in the social sciences…

There have been a wide range of important studies that have used covert methods, that have collected data from people who do not know they are being studied at the time, who would not give permission or, had permission been sought, where the data may have been dubious or biased. Researchers justify their actions by stating the need to gain access to inaccessible groups, to illuminate important social issues, and to uncover the unpalatable. Famous examples include, of course, Rosenhan’s[1] study of the ways in which mental illness may be attributed by location and situation (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/179/4070/250.short), Holdaway’s[2] insider research into the police, and Hunter S. Thompson’s[3] research into Hell’s Angel communities.

Covert methods have fallen out of vogue and are often difficult to get through postgraduate committees or, indeed, university and other research ethics committees, which increasingly promote a risk averse and pedestrian approach to scrutiny. The reasons for this include the important focus, within disciplinary ethical codes, academic and professional ethics committees, on informed consent, and promote a seemingly natural desire for excising duplicity and dishonesty from data collection in research. However, there are arguments that suggest covert methods may not always be dishonest or duplicitous and, indeed, not to use them in certain circumstances, may be, unwittingly, unethical (see Parker et al., forthcoming[4]).

The use of undercover reporting in investigative journalism, for example relating to NHS hospitals and patient treatment, and more recently non-NHS hospitals; whilst not research, illuminates many hidden and dubious practices in current society, representing some of the social good that can be drawn from such methods, and indeed ‘impact’ (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/226545.php).

Where do our research ideas come from in the social sciences? Often from lectures and dialogue within these with students, from supervision, and observations we make in everyday life. That we have collected initial soundings and thoughts from these settings and situations, which has not been scrutinised or completed without informed consent is not questioned: it would be ridiculous to assume we needed informed consent to undertake our daily practices!

There are inherent dangers in covert research which cannot be nor should not be ignored. We have a responsibility as a university to our research students and academic staff and their safety and there are, in some cases, dangers of physical violence or personal abuse in researching undercover. There are also potential reputational and relational issues for universities to consider. These risks must be assessed but we must also ask who shoulders the responsibility for the risk and whether it is important to support cover research because of its illuminative, social importance. We must acknowledge too that some unpalatable areas or risky areas can be negotiated, such as in Fielding’s[5] study of the National Front. However, permissions themselves may detract from the study quality, raise the potential for social desirability responses and selecting data collection methods requires careful thought for the best research and best practices.

As we strive for research excellence and relevance here at BU, we should grapple enthusiastically with the issues and challenges involved in covert research and back it wholeheartedly where its importance is clear. A flaccid response can lose the excitement and challenge involved in the production of new knowledge from in depth engagement with individuals, groups and societies. URECs need to highlight legal challenges, of course. Current mental capacity legislation (which my own research for the Social Care Institute for Excellence and Department of Health suggests transposes ethical scrutiny drawn from moves to protect the public from dangerous medical experimentation Parker et al. 2010[6]) demands ethical scrutiny by appropriate committees, but used well can promote and support ethically-driven knowledge creation and exploration of hidden issues that require methods that cannot and should not involve informed consent. To avoid or proscribe such research methods in all cases leads us down a safe but uninteresting and, potentially, unethical, track.


[1] Rosenhan, D.L. (1973) On being sane in insane places, Science, 179, 4070, 250-258.

[2] Holdaway, S. (1983) Inside the British Police: A force at work, Oxford: Blackwell.

[3] Thompson, H.S. (2003/1965) Hell’s Angels, London: Penguin.

[4] Parker, J., Penhale, B. and Stanley, D. (forthcoming) Research ethics review: social care and social science research and the Mental Capacity Act 2005, Ethics and Social Welfare

[5] Fielding, N. (1982) Observational research on the National Front, in M. Bulmer (ed.) Social Research Ethics: An examination of the merits of covert participant observation, London: Macmillan.

[6] Parker, J., Penhale, B. and Stanley, D. (2010) Problem or safeguard? Research ethics review in social care research and the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Social Care and Neurodisability 1, 2, 22-32.

Vice-Chancellor’s Award: Collaborative Research Project

Dr Richard Shipway (School of Tourism) won the Vice-Chancellor’s award for the best collaborative research project for his ESRC-funded project – The Sport Tourism Opportunities for Research Mobility and International Networking Group (STORMING) Initiative.

The grant award formed part of the ESRC’s ‘International Training and Networking Opportunities Programme’. The project supported seventeen early career researchers across eleven higher education institutions throughout the UK, through the provision of a series of international networking opportunities for emerging researchers with a commitment to supporting and further developing sport tourism research. All aspects of the delivery, organisation and external leveraging of the project were managed by Richard. The project has delivered a series of international research outputs and positioned the School of Tourism at the heart of emerging research in this area. Richard has also maximised opportunities from this project, including an invitation to serve on the ESRC Peer Review College, reviewing grant applications in the social sciences.

Richard received the award for having made a substantial impact in collaborative working within BU, and securing external funding to create an innovative research network involving internal colleagues and external institutions. The research undertaken by the network has led to high impact outputs.

Congratulations Richard! 😀

Notes from AHRC, ESRC & BA on challenges and opportunities for the arts and humanities and social sciences in the current economic climate

 

BU’s Kate Welham and Richard Shipway attended a meeting jointly hosted by the AHRC, British Academy and the ESRC aimed at discussing the challenges and opportunities for the arts and humanities and social sciences in the current economic climate. The focus of the event included presentations from the three Chief Executives of the respective research bodies who outlined their amended research agendas and current strategic funding priorities. Notes from the day can be found here: Arts Humanities & Social Sciences Meeting Event

ESRC Demand Management consultation

ESRC logoThe Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has today published plans for how it will manage the increasing demand for its research funding. Their aim is to have fewer, high-quality applications so the best social science is funded in the most effective way.

They will be introducing an initial programme of measures of improved self-regulation and a change to their existing peer review practices and submission policies.

These measures include:

  • the introduction of an invited-only resubmission policy as of June 2011
  • revised sifting mechanisms (greater use of outline applications and earlier sifting for standard grants)
  • issue more tightly specified calls on managed mode schemes which address the ESRC strategic priorities

After 12 months of these initial measures the ESRC will review their effectiveness, to establish whether further steps need to be taken to manage demand. In case further steps are required the ESRC welcome your views on the potential options, particularly in relation to the following questions:

  • Which main demand management options are worthy of further development and why?
  • How might those options be further developed and refined?
  • Which, if any of the main demand management options, would you not consider for further development and why?
  • Overall, which of the options offers the best opportunities to effectively manage demand whilst ensuring the flow of high-quality research applications? Are there any further options which are not included in this paper whcich should be considered by us as part of our demand management strategy?

The deadline for the submission of responses is 16 June 2011. These should be completed using the form on ‘SurveyMonkey’ at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/demand_management.

We would encourage all academic staff researching in the social sciences to respond to the consultation.

To ensure your research proposal stands the best chance of success use BU’s internal peer review scheme – the Research Proposal Review Service.

Prof Colin Pritchard elected as an Academician of the AcSS

Colin PritchardThe Centre for Social Work and Social Policy is proud to announce that Professor Colin Pritchard has been elected as an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS), one of only two in the history of BU, both of whom are in the Centre (the other being Professor Jonathan Parker).

Colin was nominated for this by two Academicians and academics Professor Lord Raymond Plant (King’s College London) and Professor Peter Coleman (University of Southampton).Academy of Social Sciences logo

The AcSS is the prestigious learned society for the social sciences, the president being Sir Howard Newby. The AcSS are currently campaigning within both Houses for social science and demonstrating its importance to society and the economy.

This achievement acknowledges a lifetime’s high profile achievement within academic social work.

Congratulations Colin!