Inside or Outside? 1st April 2010

Given that Ken Payne has given me the keys to the fort (see previous post), I may as well abuse my tenure…

As academics we are increasingly be asked to make our research more friendly to business, more friendly to the policy world – to improve on its ‘impact’ as the Research Assessment Exercise’s successor, the REF hones into view.

But how to reach this exclusive world of practitioners – what some cynical souls call ‘the real world’…

In book proposals it is always tempting to play up how accessible the writing is, the lengths to which one has gone to make the complexity of the arguments bite-sized and nuanced; to coax the publisher into thinking there will be more sales attached to this book – I never do this (obviously…). But actually the real world is as the academic world is – full intrays and not enough time. So that very worthy tome on widgets and stuff is left for a rainy day. The one page summary or executive head note found on a think-tank report is far friendlier, and they’ve written it in an accessible, almost journalistic way… clever that.

So, as a profession we have problems – and well beyond our social skills.

* Our research tends to take time to produce, and time that is well beyond what can be considered ‘reasonable’ in the real world.

* Publishing this research in a peer-review format can take up to two years from the time of writing (6months to peer review, and 18 months for the article to work its way into a issue and out). Which, again, is very little use to the real world.

* We’re not the most charismatic people in the world. There are some notable exceptions; but there is a distinct peer group pressure and clustering away from these people. People who carry themselves well enough to be on the telly are deeply suspicious; so it goes. Those who spend their time networking with policy makers are ‘climbers’ and ‘don’t do serious stuff’. What was worse was that in the last RAE this suspicion was further compounded by the virtual exclusion of policy work from the exercise (not a great incentive, if you care at all about your career). This time (well, for the next REF – although the rules won’t be decided until the 11th hour again) there is this ‘impact’ criteria which should recognise policy work – but not individually, in meta-narratives (bangs head on the table).

* The way we’re trained to write runs contrary to accessibility. The number of PhD students (myself included at the time, and now too..) who sit back and bask at the perfect sentence or paragraph.. to be told that their supervisor doesn’t understand it, and that it should be re-written. The over-use of footnotes (another training point) is something that also torpedoes easy reading.

* Translating ‘critical’ research – I know some serious bright people in both branches (and I mean this very very loosely) of social science research. The ‘mainstream’ and the ‘critical’. By ‘critical’ I mean research conducted using post-positivist methodologies, or radical framing devices (post-structuralism, constructivism [up to a point], historical materialism, anarchism etc), and by mainstream, I mean the positivist and liberal/conservative schools of thought. The latter are those who find it easy (easier?) to engage in the policy world. The former are self-excluding (clearly a problem) but also excluded. There’s no need to waste words discussing why people exclude themselves or are excluded – it should be obvious. But what does interest me is whether and if so, how, these critical works could be brought into the policy realm? Is postie work always untranslatable into policy? Personally, I don’t think it is.. but I’d need to think a lot harder about how these critical works could be contextualised sufficiently to make their utility obvious to the real world.

* Access – broadly speaking, and in my areas of research which are broadly British and European defence and security, and more specifically intelligence and the arms trade (linked and unlinked) to gain access is to sacrifice the freedom to write (ie you can’t report it; entirely fair), whilst to have no access is to sacrifice relevance. Christopher Andrew has shown that very decent scholarship can be produced from the most restrictive type of arrangement – that of ‘official historian’ – so perhaps all is not lost. But there seems little understanding – little systemic understanding, perhaps – about how to engage the talent pool of academics in relevant work. The majority don’t understand how to ingratiate themselves to policy makers, and vice versa. So, what we’re often left with is a lowest common denominator of those usual faces who are adept at hawking themselves around. It is a very similar scenario with media appearances too.

So, what is to be done?

Well, encouraging academics to get more involved is well and fine – but creating opportunities (not necessarily paid opportunities, but opportunities where the roaming and curious mind is allowed to feed in – think of a Matt LeTissier type role, behind the front two – due apologies to the American readership) would go a long way to encouraging social scientists in.

Interdisciplinarity – I’ve long wanted to see the engineering and design side of the arms trade, the ‘real’ business of the trade, but I have had precisely no luck in securing that kind of access. I’d like to think that a company like BAE – with its difficult last few years – would embrace a budding social scientist who wants to tell a good story.. I’m still just at the end of an email… Back to the plot though, the cross fertilization of social science and science is not necessarily the evil it is portrayed as – it is still possible to do rigorous and honest social science within a science setting, and to create ‘added value’ in the process (for both sides).

Clustering – I think we have to move away from the idea that we naturally work well on research projects with our departmental colleagues. The people I have written with have come from KCL, Sussex, Aberystwyth, Bristol and Strathclyde universities; none from Loughborough – which is not to say my colleagues aren’t world class, they most certainly are, it’s just that the intellectual community I like to work and play with are found outside those walls, and in a virtual academic community (much like KoW itself). This soft-replication of social networking is, I think, the future for productive and innovative academic research – we have to find our networks (be they in our discipline or in others) and work hard with them. Much as the state has had to go transnational, so do we.

And I think this applies to the distinction between academia and the real world. These dividing lines are real in some circumstances (official secrets and the like) but they are mostly artificial and we should find ways of working with each other fluidly and intelligently … in ways that move beyond the traditional seminar, or the same old faces…

Now, given my e-postbag today, I know for a fact that some practitioner types read KoW, so their thoughts would be as welcome as those from academic colleagues.

Anyhow.. enough.. I need to give Kenny his keys to the fort back…

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