At a time when some audiences and commentators seem intent not simply to resist academic knowledge but to discredit it, the perception of academic researchers as somewhat under siege is perhaps unsurprising. But rather than aggressively reasserting the value of academic expertise, Claire Packman, Louise Rutt and Grace Williams argue for a reconceptualising of the meaning of professional community and a more collaborative approach to research. Professional services staff are often ideally placed to bridge any perceived divide between academic and non-academic stakeholders, and to consider ways to dismantle some of the barriers to effective communication.

As Janice Kaye, Provost at the University of Exeter, wrote in the Times Higher Education at the end of last year, the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the US presidential election victory for Donald Trump have been “heralded as a celebration for the average person, the overthrow of the intelligentsia”. While the reality is inevitably complex, this rhetoric has become visible in policy changes and behaviours which appear to ignore research-informed evidence (such as the change in US policies towards fossil fuels). In the UK, if we add to this the cumulative effect of more than a decade of policies demanding more and more effort towards social and economic benefits from academic research, and the assessment of these benefits mandated by HEFCE’s Research Excellent Framework (REF), it may seem that the centuries-old ideals of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the “purity” of academic research, and academics as expert leaders, appear to be being undermined or even abandoned. Some audiences and commentators seem intent not simply to resist academic knowledge but to discredit it. No wonder academics are keen to defend the benefits and values of their modes of enquiry, debate, and knowledge formation.

However, while arguing for these benefits is necessary in the current anti-intellectual environment, normalising within academia an ethos of engaged research may well be the best form of defence in the longer term, creating more impactful research and enabling partners and publics better to understand, appreciate, and contribute to the value of academic research.

Academic and research expertise is, most assuredly, crucial; the problem lies in solely privileging it. Recognising, respecting, and welcoming the differing expertise and experience of different communities is precisely the way that barriers will be overcome.

Image credit: Scott Webb, via Unsplash. This work is licensed under a CC0 1.0 license.

“Knowledge resistance” is not confined to partners or publics. It can also be a significant barrier where academics are themselves resistant to the knowledge of others. Knowledge resistance, whether a deliberate turning away or simply a failure to take into account the expertise or experiences of others, tends to arise where researchers are not working with partners, but instead are “disseminating” knowledge to audiences (various publics such as businesses, professionals, interest groups, or the amorphous “general public”) according to an old-fashioned model of academic expertise. In this model, not only is no account taken of the needs or objectives of these audiences or of their particular expertise, but there is no thought of partnership working at all. Findings might (or might not) be presented in “lay” terms, often in glossy reports and brochures. While it is unclear whether this approach was ever effective, in the internet age, where information overload is a greater problem than information paucity, it is even less likely to work and there are more valuable and mutually beneficial approaches.

We believe the most effective approach is to acknowledge and include the issues and perspectives of non-academic partners through partnership working at all relevant stages of the research process. In practice, this means that academics may need to reconceptualise what they consider to be their professional community and consequently to reconceptualise their role as an academic. The term “academic” is a very broad one; there are academics who have a dual role as both researchers and stakeholders, while others are community-based, and others may have moved from roles in community or stakeholder organisations into the higher education sector. Academic researchers are one part of a much wider and collaborative professional community which comprises differing stakeholders from a range of sectors, likely to include “publics” with differing expertise and differing experience of the problem or question at hand. The language of engaged research encompasses terms such as “partnership”, “collaboration”, “co-creation”, “co-production”, “co-development”, “(active) listening”, and “respect”. Genuine partnership relies on respect and will produce mutual benefit. Dialogue is what drives knowledge and understanding.

In recent years there has been an expansion of engaged research, partly, no doubt, in response to the strong reputational and financial drivers of impact, such as the REF. HEIs have responded to these drivers by appointing increasing numbers of professional services (PS) staff (categorised and contracted as non-academic staff) with the expertise to broker powerful, collaborative relationships with external partners and thus to support academics to deliver impactful research. These staff are often ideally placed to bridge any perceived divide between academic and non-academic stakeholders, and to consider ways to dismantle some of the barriers to effective communication – though this is not, of course, the only approach. Staff undertaking intermediary roles will have a responsibility to understand the communication barriers that exist on all sides of collaborative working, and can help explore and address any issues that arise from any of the parties.

The benefits of PS roles are at least threefold. An intermediary may be better placed to see a situation from both the academic and the non-academic perspective, and be able to “translate” and mediate. As they are less invested in the research, they may be better able to distil its essence – academics are, not unnaturally, sometimes resistant to what they may see as reductive simplification. Time is a crucial issue for academics, and PS staff can help to free them from some impact or engagement tasks, enabling them to prioritise. Being a step removed from the research, but having an awareness of and involvement with engaged research activity across an institution, can mean that PS staff are able to provide creative solutions. They are well placed to break research out of its disciplinary silo, sharing best practice across and making connections between other projects, disciplines, and even faculties.

This blog post is based on the authors’ article, “The value of experts, the importance of partners, and the worth of the people in between” published in Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

Claire Packman is a Research and Impact Manager at the University of Exeter, focusing on Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences disciplines. Her interest is in the production and evaluation of research impact, including national policy in this area.

 

Louise Rutt is a Research and Impact Manager at the University of Exeter, with a focus on Exeter’s STEM disciplines and Medical School. Current and past roles have included supporting the development of engaged impact pathways, funding bids and projects, and working on impact evaluation, reporting and evidence, including for REF2014. She previously completed a PhD in Human Geography at the University of Exeter.

Grace Williams is Engaged Research Manager for the University of Exeter. She coordinates the delivery of engaged research activity across the University and oversees strategic initiatives, creating enabling conditions and policies for high quality engaged research to take place. Grace previously worked both at the Economic and Social Research Council and Research Councils UK.

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