Last week I went to a conference in Nottingham – Circling the Square, and spent a great two days discussing research communication and impact. Before I get into the important stuff, I just want to point out that the University of Nottingham has the most amazing campus! It has lots of modern purpose-built buildings scattered across a gently hilly landscape, interspersed with stretches of grassland, tress and lakes – and we were lucky enough to have some sunshine too which made walking between the venues really pretty and relaxing. It felt more like a holiday resort than a campus!
View from the Orchard Hotel on University of Nottingham campus
Anyhoo, back to business….
Research governance and the Haldane Principal
Brian Collins (UCL) kicked off talking about research governance and how it is inevitably affected by political whim and change. He pointed out the importance of research needing to stand the test of time and have its own relevance, as well as fulfilling a political goal where appropriate.
Brian also touched on the Haldane Principle: research funding should be decided by researchers, not politicians, but this applies to university, government funded research only. Increasingly, research is also funded by industry, charity and individuals, meaning this principle is not always in play, and elements of personal and industry influence are introduced.
Research communication – mainstream media and online platforms
Following on from this introduction, Brian covered the media as a means to communicate research to ‘the man in the street’. He laid out the underlying tenants of research communication as truth, balance, sales, encouraging debate and commentary – but these do not always work in harmony. The role of mainstream media in research communication is also now affected by universities being pro-active in their own research communications through diverse channels (social media, publications, websites, blogs).
Who communicates research impact?
The increasing trend towards impact evaluation/assessment is leading to an emphasis on the stories behind the research and communicating them effectively. However, many people are finding that researchers are not always the best people to carry out this communication. So far, researchers have been told how to communicate impact, when what we really need to do is ask them about it and make them central to the actions/pathways.
Requirements for the future include more scholarship around research impact/communication, a consideration of the dangers of oversimplification, and the implementation of structures to facilitate research impact/communication.
Think in fields, not departments
In terms of making researchers central to communication/impact plans, Daniele Fanelli (Montreal) discussed how it is key to think and talk in terms of fields rather than disciplines, as multidisciplinary research and changing schools/departments mean fields are more meaningful to researchers. They are also more internationally inclusive and more accurate – everything varies by field.
Using research to inform practice
On day 2, Chris Tyler (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) talked about the growing interest in the interface between science and policy and science advisory roles. He believes we need more academic research into these relationships and pathways to inform the processes they involve – the research needs to be academically rigorous but practical too. It was good to hear Chris standing up and declaring a need for this kind of research, as I am hoping to contribute to filling this current gap with some of my work.
Professionalising research communications/impact support
Chris also made a point of explaining that not all academics should be forced into research communication. He argues that university management needs structures to help select and support the people and processes, to make sure those most suited for them are given opportunities, whilst those not so suited are given support and alternative channels.
Andrew Williams (Cardiff) also expressed a need for more strategic and professional approaches to research communications. Universities exist in an increasingly competitive higher education market, which is only going to become more so – improving communications around the research sector of this will be key to achieving wider goals of student uptake, grants awarded, etc.
I found all the discussion above both useful in terms of furthering my understanding of the impact debate, and rewarding in its confirmation of my research aims. It has helped me to contextualise the importance of putting the researcher at the centre of my PhD to ensure it is their lived experiences which inform the work. I’m looking forward to feeding all of this into my current research plan, which is taking shape in time for my end of June deadline.
I would love to hear any comments on the areas discussed. 🙂