Academic blogging can provide a forum to engage with new ideas and to critically analyse research, but can it help researchers win vital funding? Peter Matthews doesn’t know yet, but here he details the benefits he has achieved by publishing his impact funding statement and inviting feedback from colleagues online.
I was inspired to start my blog when I began my first lecturing post back in January and now I’m thoroughly embedded in the web generation. One of the main reasons I blog is just because it’s a nice think space. The process of writing for me is very helpful in engaging in new ideas, critically analysing subjects, and just venting steam. I’m not pronouncing on great research findings, but just being able to put my ideas out there is very useful. I don’t know if its REF-worthy, but I can spend focused time on journal articles while enjoying spouting off on topics as diverse as impact, cycling and Edinburgh’s history. The chatty, journalistic style of blog writing suits me as I find it easy and I also find it enables greater engagement with yourself as a person and an academic.
I also see my blog as a useful teaching tool for engaging students in ongoing news stories. My subject area is spatial planning and if I had been teaching down in England this semester then my blog would have been full of the to and fro-ing around the National Planning Policy Framework. In a subject such as planning that is responding to ongoing political change then blogging is a great way to keep teaching material more alive.
As an active social scientist in a policy-focused subject I do maintain my blog with an eye on engagement with my research interests, particularly with policy makers. I don’t think I’ll ever be the civil servants’ first port of call for policy advice, but it has got me noticed in policy and practitioner networks. It seems that journalists and policy-makers are ‘googling’ when looking for expert advice and academic analysis. I was gobsmacked to receive an email from Scottish Television’s local Edinburgh news team, who had found me through my blog, during the height of the Edinburgh Trams fiasco for a comment on what was happening.
As part of this larger engagement, I decided to write the role of my academic blogging into my recent ESRC funding application. As part of my Pathways to Impact statement, I detailed the role of my blog in disseminating research, and how I plan to use it to push out my findings to an unsuspecting public of policy makers. But, while I know people are reading my blog, I had absolutely no idea who my online audience was made up of. So in the nature of open research and collaboration, I decided to publish my Pathways to Impact statement on my blog and invite feedback from my audience. I asked readers for comments and their opinions on my statement and, most importantly, whether the impact activities I listed were viable and whether the impact on policy making that I envisaged was realistic at all.
To my surprise news of my post spread pretty quickly through Twitter and remains my most viewed post. Alas it only generated a few comments but they were very useful, and ensured that the statement I submitted was quite different from my original draft. The main criticism was that the draft was too vague and too much like many other Pathways to Impact statements. The insights from and the RCUK pathways to impact model was a much more focused statement. After all, in public policy as in many other areas, impact is a bit hit-and-miss. Much as I would like to influence policy makers, the academic research that my research was coming out of, on spatial inequalities and policy responses, began in the 1970s and really only started having impact in the late 1990s. The impact I could foresee and also evidence was activities such as seminars to specific groups of policy makers in local authorities, such as customer service managers; or a focused research findings briefing distributed through online communities of practice portals. The eventual submitted Pathways to Impact Statement was very different to the one I blogged and included responses to all the comments, so I can say it was a very useful exercise in opening up my work, and improving it through online communication. And, of course, thanks to Tony Bovaird, who was especially helpful in his suggestions.
What really did surprise me was quite how quickly my project took off and that its still proving interesting reading for those clicking on my statement now.
However, the instrumental question is did the blogging of my statement not only mean I received thoughtful, helpful feedback but does it also mean I was successful in my ultimate aim for funding? I don’t know yet and won’t know until next year. When I do, I’ll open up my updated Pathways to Impact statement and allow my readers to give their thoughts on it. For now however, another good academic blogger, Adam Goldberg at Nottingham University Business School, points out that research councils are so financially constrained at the moment that funding allocations can be little more than a lottery. Hopefully my application will fall on the desk of reviewers who are sympathetic to blogging!
Peter Matthews tweets at @urbaneprofessor and blogs regularly here.
Thanks for the link to my blog. It’s always gratifying to know that it’s being read. I do wonder sometimes how many of the ‘visitors’ are web crawlers and spammers and how many are actual humans. And how many of those actual humans aren’t just googling for illustrations for their own blogs….
I remember seeing your blog post with the Impact Statement, and meant to comment but never quite got round to it. The comments that I did read looked like good advice, and I wish you well with your application for funding.
However, I hope my blog hasn’t given the impression that I believe that funding can be “little more than a lottery”, as that’s really the opposite of my view. The ‘lottery’ view – the mistaken belief among some research managers that if you throw in enough applications, some will eventually get funded – is one of the reasons why the ESRC have had to consider ‘demand management’ measures including the possibility of individual sanctions.
There’s a longer post on success rates on my blog at http://socialscienceresearchfunding.co.uk/?p=226 but the short version of my view on this is that although there is an element of luck involved in getting funding (and arguably always will be), that element of luck only comes into play for projects which are of outstanding quality. If it’s not an outstanding project, it won’t get funded, and no amount of good fortune is likely to change that.
In the interests of pedantry, I should also say that I’m based at Nottingham University Business School, not at Nottingham Trent. You know how easily rumours can start….
Adam – thanks for the lengthy response, and apologies for misrepresenting you twice! I think I took the “lottery” impression from your blog just because you highlighted the falling success rates and the ESRC’s concerns about demand management, which are a bit depressing for early-career researchers like myself with the institutional pressure to get that first grant. I’ll make sure I keep readers informed as things progress (finger’s crossed).
As for readership – I presume my extensive Russian readership is spam trawling, but most of the referred traffic comes from my own tweets and other’s retweets, so I presume they’re people. And as I say, it’s as much for myself to get ideas out on screen/paper as to engage an active readership. If people do read and engage it’s a bonus.
I think the general point you were making was right – it’s certainly a very tough time for early career researchers and success rates are low, and it’s worth thinking very carefully about whether or not applying for funding is the right think to do. The old Post-Doc and First Grants schemes are now condensed into a Future Leaders scheme which is pretty clear about the criteria – if you can’t demonstrate that you’re a potential 4* researcher of the future, don’t bother applying. Small Grants have gone completely, and that’s another opportunity for ECRs gone – even if in practice it wasn’t ECRs who did particularly well from that scheme. Under these circumstances, I think institutions need to re-think that pressure that they’re applying.
Hello Adam, thanks for your comment, we’ve changed your affiliation to Nottingham University Business School now.
All the best,
Amy and the team
I think Peter has hit on one of the key attractions of blogging for those of us who spend a lot of our working lives researching into the activities of others – it is great to engage in an ongoing debate, rather than just a presentation and a follow-up e-mail. I am becoming convinced that disseminating findings via a blog is much more effective than even the most beautifully written executive summary.
I wish someone would come up with an easy tool to remove all the search engines and bots from our blog stats, despite the inevitable impact on morale. I manually removed the top 20 ISP addresses from my stats and saw that my readership was about half of what I had imagined. Still, at least I have a better idea of what’s going on in the real world now.
Here’s hoping! Once my latest research project is wrapped up a bit I’ll be using my blog a lot more to distribute the findings and engage in debate and I’m hoping that’s a worthwhile and interesting experience.
The thing I can’t get the Blogger analytics to stop doing is recording my own visits – the box always checks itself after I uncheck it. I might be my own most prolific reader.
This is a really interesting outcome and it will be fascinating to see if your bid is succesful! You might want to take a look at a blog I posted on Research to Action that explores blogging as a means to increase academic engagement.
Unpacking the share and engage mantra for researchers: