Impact from critical research: what might it look like and what support is required?

Ahead of REF 2021, Ruth Machen considers what impact from critical research could look like and how assessment frameworks could support, rather than squeeze out, space for critical research. Four modes of critical research impact are outlined: challenging policy; empowering resistances; platforming voices; and nurturing new critical publics. Note that this was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog

Critical research is often impassioned by a desire for social change. Yet as research that challenges the status quo – by unpacking the socio-historical contingency of meanings and exposing the reproduction of structural inequalities of power – critical research often faces a more challenging pathway to impact. As demands for demonstrating impact are increasingly woven throughout the funding and institutional architectures of higher education, Smith and Stewart are not alone in raising concerns that the impact agenda could adversely affect critical and blue-skies research, favouring instead research that lends itself more easily to societal uptake.

With the draft guidelines for REF2021 open for consultation, now, perhaps more than ever, is a good moment to think about what impact from critical research could look like. And how assessment frameworks could support, rather than squeeze out, space for critical research. To this end, this post outlines four modes of critical research impact: challenging policy; empowering resistances; platforming voices; and nurturing new critical publics.

Research impact: to engage or not?

Anxiety around the impact agenda arises from the increasing instrumentalisation of knowledge, the corporatisation of UK higher education, and the relationship between assessment metrics and neoliberalism (Pain et al. 2011, Pain 2014, Gregson et al. 2012, Olssen 2015). As well as fears that impact will prioritise certain kinds of knowledge, there are also concerns it rewards particular types of researcher; academic elites with established reputations and influential networks rather than early-career or international researchers (Smith and Stewart 2016). These are vitally important concerns. Yet some scholars also identify opportunities for “doing impact differently”. Participatory Action Research (PAR) had delivered social benefits through collaboration with non-academic partners long before research impact became instrumentalised within academic assessments (Pain et al. 2011). Pain in particular seeks to reclaim impact as “walking together”, rather than “striking a blow” (2014; see also Evans 2016). Likewise, Reed and Chubb suggest that impact is a provocation to reconsider our intrinsic motivations for research and epistemic responsibilities. Re-engaging with these, they argue, incentivises impact without research becoming driven by external incentives (Reed and Chubb 2018). Perhaps there is merit in heeding Back’s argument that, as soon as someone suggests “this would make a good impact case study”, we should be alert to how our attention is being directed. However, does pursuing impact necessarily put us, as Back (2015) suggests, “on the side of the powerful”?

Exempting Laing et al’s recent work in education (2018), there is a strange silence around what impact in critical research might look like beyond PAR. Suggestions that not all research, and not all researchers, need to realise impact open space for critical research only through exception, negation, or omission. Instead, building from Pain et al.’s emphasis on the “political imperative to restate the kind of academy in which we want to work” (2011:187), I focus on how impact might be pursued in ways that support and enrich critical agendas.

What might critical research impact look like?

A review of the REF2014 impact case studies yields the following simple typology, which might provide a useful starting point:

 Figure 1: four possible modes of critical research impact

Mode 1: Challenging policy

The UK Government Magenta Book – the UK Government’s guidance for policy evaluation – in principle endorses the need for critical approaches that unpack assumptions underlying policy and analyses. Confronting mainstream policy head-on could involve policy amendments by highlighting the implications of existing policies on particular underrepresented groups, geographies, or concerns. More transformative policy change is likely to involve election manifesto writers and/or targeted social pressure rather than consultations within existing policy cycles.

Mode 2: Empowering resistance

Greater traction around critical research findings is sometimes found amongst activist organisations with a degree of policy standing. For these organisations, research, or the connections it articulates, may help to strengthen their discursive position or alternative vision.

Mode 3: Platforming voices

This mode is typified by PAR, where working with marginalised communities often co-produces research questions around non-academic challenges, foregrounds and empowers underrepresented voices, and sometimes challenges participant narratives through deliberation (see Roberts and Escobar’s work on citizen juries).

Mode 4: Nurturing new critical publics

Critical research can inspire new critically engaged citizens. Gregson et al. (2012) argue that engaging with schools can “reclaim critical praxis and constitute new critical subjects”. With rapidly developing digital technologies and the growing role of social media in generating critical publics, there are opportunities to think about new forms of media through which critical publics become fashioned, politically engaged, and/or mobilised.

Recommendations for supporting critical research impact

To support and encourage critical forms of research in the pursuit of societal change, assessments of research impact should bear in mind the following:

  1. Direct policy citation of critical research is rare. Change is more likely through political ownership of ideas, and what Pain et al. have called a “more diverse and porous series of smaller transformative actions that arise through changed understanding among all of those involved” (2011: 187). Retaining a strong focus on narratives in impact assessment and recognising the role played by relationships are both important.
  2. Changing the terms of debate is difficult and slow, with quick wins unlikely. Critical research impact may require longer timeframes to develop, materialising outside or cross-cutting assessment periods.
  3. Marginal/alternative organisations may be smaller and/or more local in reach. Assessing significance and reach together helps to prevent reach from dominating.

The typology presented here is basic, provisional, and by no means exhaustive. Its goal is to prompt debate and expand possibilities for thinking about critical research impact. With similar conversations reportedly held at Open (2013), Bristol (2013), and Glasgow (2015) universities, it would be great to hear more about these discussion findings – especially in thinking through forms of impact beyond policy

Ruth Machen is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. Her research on science-policy interaction focuses on environmental knowledge where her recent work takes a critical look at science-policy translation – Towards a Critical Politics of Translation


What use is academia for small businesses and community interest companies?

Please note that this post has been re-blogged from the original, first published on the LSE Impact Blog  

Pressures to demonstrate the impact of research has led to increasing numbers of academics looking beyond their peers for new audiences for their research findings, including to small businesses and community interest companies. But how can academia be of use to these groups? Emily Rainsford, LJ Rawlings, Lauren Mistry and Eve Forrest share reflections on a successful collaboration and skills exchange between a social sciences researcher and community interest company Youth Employment UK, with perspectives from academic, community interest company, and funder.

What use is academia for small businesses and community interest companies? Both within and outside of academia, this question is becoming more and more relevant. Pressures to demonstrate the impact of research has led to increasing numbers of academics looking beyond their annual conferences and workshops for new audiences for their research findings, audiences who may or may not prove receptive.

This post provides three perspectives reflecting on a successful collaboration, funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA), between Youth Employment UK, a community interest company (i.e. social enterprise), and Dr Emily Rainsford, a research associate in the politics department at Newcastle University.

Emily was seconded to Youth Employment UK for a skills exchange as part of the ESRC secondment scheme, which targets social scientists to collaborate with businesses around the industrial strategy – not necessarily as natural a match as in other fields. Below, all parties – academic, business, and funder – share their reflections on why this collaboration proved to be a success. Rather than a prescriptive account of how to undertake such work, this post is instead a reflection on the development of the relationships involved.

Emily Rainsford – the academic

At the time I saw the call for the ESRC IAA secondment, I didn’t know much about Youth Employment UK, other than they were the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Youth Employment. The call was focused on early-career researchers looking to foster a skills exchange with business.  I was initially taken aback by the criteria: as someone from the social sciences, and politics in particular, working with a business doesn’t feel like a natural match!

I realised the main skills I have to offer are research skills and expertise, so I approached Youth Employment UK with the offer of a methods workshop in exchange for being shown the ropes of the policy domain. Luckily this was exactly what they wanted, to become more authoritative with data and research but lacking the skills or capacity at that particular time. Having that clearly formulated mutual benefit at the outset was key to the success of our collaboration.

My research is on the role of family in pathways to youth employment, so clearly of relevance to young people, their families, and society. My main motivation for applying for the IAA money and working with Youth Employment UK is I care about what I’m researching and am determined to share the knowledge created with those who are affected by it, and those with the power to make a difference. Youth Employment UK is a key player in this field and so seemed a fitting partner with whom to develop effective pathways to impact. In addition to a wide-ranging membership, including all sizes of businesses, charities, youth organisations, and young people, they work with civil servants and politicians and run the APPG.

It was clear from the beginning that we had complementary skills, knowledge, and contacts. Early on I visited their office in Kettering to deliver the methods training, while we also spent a day planning our report. That initial, face-to-face, intensive meeting was really valuable in establishing trust and understanding. The methods training has been one of the main impacts on Youth Employment UK, as they have now started their own data collection. In exchange, I’ve gained some invaluable contacts and new avenues through which to disseminate my research – from national organisations delivering employment programmes, to businesses like Pret, as well as charities like the Saints Foundation. I’ve also been given access to their political networks and now represent them on the European Social Fund’s national sub-committee on employment, skills, and social inclusion. I’m due to speak at the APPG on Youth Employment in London in September.

LJ Rawlings and Lauren Mistry, Youth Employment UK – the small business and community interest company

Youth Employment UK champions the voice of youth. Founded in 2012, we work tirelessly to ensure young people have a view on the issues that matter. While we have worked with young people on a national scale, albeit in smaller focus groups, larger pieces of research have proved beyond our capacity. Despite this, an ambition of ours is to become an authoritative research voice, and so collaborating with Emily has helped us make vital progress towards this goal.

While we enter into collaborative partnerships frequently, this type of skills exchange wasn’t something we had any knowledge or experience of before. But we certainly found it a valuable and enjoyable learning and development opportunity. The senior leadership team received thorough training in the research process and, with Emily’s support, could subsequently plan impact and evaluation measures of our existing programmes. We have been able to put some of this learning into practise when planning and designing our Youth Voice Census, and gaining this extra capacity and experience sets us up for more ambitious research projects. The new skills will not only enable us to improve our programmes, but also potentially attract more or different funding in future. The training has also made us better critical thinkers, more able to interrogate the big data and statistics we use frequently, such as the Labour Force survey. Too often previously we would be confined to what we thought we knew, repeating the same stats and information.

We take away two important lessons from this collaboration. Firstly, it is important to manage expectations and clearly understand the resources your business will need to allocate from the start. You’re not hiring someone to undertake work for you; it’s a project that demands equal collaboration. Secondly, embrace working with academics and universities. The business sector and social scientists don’t always engage with one another but there is certainly potential for fruitful collaborations.

Eve Forrest, ESRC IAA Officer at Newcastle University – the funder

Of the many successful ESRC IAA projects and secondments we have funded, a number of common underpinning factors can be noted. Good relationships take time to develop and often begin before projects have even been conceived. Whether through chance encounters at sector-specific events or working through ideas at targeted workshops, collaborations frequently start softly. I would always recommend that people, regardless of the sector they’re in, are open to networking opportunities in their own and related fields. These networks can be a great source of – and sounding board for – new ideas.

Also crucial is to bring partners into the project at the earliest opportunity. Irrespective of whether or not the work ends up bearing fruit, partners appreciate the chance to contribute to the process and indicate what support they can offer, which is frequently more than you might expect. To encourage pre-submission discussions, we ask IAA applicants for confirmation that all partners involved have had oversight of the application. We’ve found that co-production applications that have been discussed at length with partners beforehand are stronger and more nuanced in the impact they deliver.

Another key success factor is making clear partners’ mutually beneficial outcomes, as LJ and Emily have outlined. At the beginning of any project, researchers should consider things from the perspective of their collaborators. How much time will realistically be required? What are the advantages of being a part of the work? What are the tangible benefits of involvement? This needn’t necessarily be focused on monetary gains – is there any part of the project they could shape an approach to, or offer insight to others? Is there any help you could give them in return for in-kind support? Being mindful of these advantages can help a project have a lasting legacy.

Of course, you can’t beat good, old-fashioned chemistry and if you get on with a collaborator right away, the rest will come naturally, as it did with Emily and LJ’s project. Yet all strong relationships must start from somewhere. Whether through a chance meeting or a more targeted approach you should always expect the unexpected with any collaboration, but start slowly and it might blossom into something beautiful.

The final report on this project, “The Role of Family in Social Mobilityis available for download from the Youth Employment UK website.

About the authors

Emily Rainsford is a research associate in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. She has been working on the CUPESSE project looking at the role of family in young people’s pathways to employment and achievement of economic self-sufficiency. She has long been involved in various impact and outreach related activities relating to young people but also an internship in the Cabinet Office, and occasionally tweets at @EmilyRainsford.

Laura-Jane Rawlings is Founder and CEO of Youth Employment UK. She is a passionate campaigner for youth employment and for the rights for all young people to access employment and have their voices heard on the issues that affect them. Recognised as a leading youth employment expert, Laura-Jane provides support, insight, and expertise to many groups such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education and Youth Employment, the Education and Skills sub-committee, and sits on the steering group for the Cabinet Office Inclusive Economy Partnership for Youth Employment. She also sits on two ESF National sub-committees: Employment, Skills and Social Inclusion, and Equality and Diversity. Laura-Jane has also worked on consultative projects with organisations such as the Cambridge Local Authority, Northamptonshire Learning Partnership, Chilled Food Association, OCR, Plotr, PiXL, and the National Citizen Service.

Lauren Mistry is Communications and Operations Director at Youth Employment UK. She oversees the organisation’s operations and content management, ensuring that information shared with young people meets their needs. Lauren led the redesign of the Youth Employment UK site and manages the extensive content plan, campaigns, and messaging. She has led key research projects as part of her role, exploring employability skills in the 2017 literature review, supporting on the Role of the Family in Social Mobility report published in 2018, and is leading on the Youth Voice Census research. Most recently Lauren has joined the IEP West Midlands Pilot project to lend her support and expertise.

Eve Forrest manages the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) at Newcastle University and is based within the Impact team in the Faculty for Humanities and Social Science. She has an interest in widening engagement and awareness of social science research with various local and national partners. Her research interests include embodiment and everyday technology practices with particular focus on photography and blogging.


Connecting with NODES: scoping the potential for interdisciplinary learning

Last week, Dr Eve Forrest, ESRC IAA Officer attended an industry-facing event put on by the NODES network, she tells us here about the potential connections to be made by social sciences across disciplines and with industry 

Learning about various overlapping  nodes and connections in the NODES research group

Last week I went to an afternoon organised by NODES (North East Organisation of Discrete Structures) a group of Mathematicians and Computer Scientists based at Newcastle and Durham Universities. This was slightly unknown territory for me as I am based in the HaSS (Humanities and Social Science) Faculty in Newcastle University and my own interdisciplinary research interests are based in the Humanities although I have dabbled outside of this sphere. I was there out of curiosity  because I have been tasked by the ESRC as part of my role to think about how social science postgraduate students and early career academics can get better connected with local businesses and industry (this blog post written by Tim Vorley from Sheffield University and Melanie Knetsch from the ESRC, outlines the context for this and why it is important for future potential funding in the social sciences).

The industry day was split into two sections: showing links between Newcastle PhD students (both present and former) with a computational and mathematical background and their journey into industry. Alongside those were a quick set of ‘speed dating’ presentations, where local, national and multinational businesses, presented some of the areas they were working on, the challenges they faced and the areas they were interested in developing with NODES. Through the pure mathematical and computational language I was listening out for potential areas where social science could intersect with and help on some of the industry problems outlined in the presentations and was happy to find there was there was plenty to think about.

The buzz of course, across multiple disciplines,is about data (both big and small) and about how it is gathered, sorted, processed and what stories it can tell us (and more recently the ethical implications of its harvesting and life beyond the user thanks to the expose of Cambridge Analytica). Humans can be very predictable in their habits which can be broadly mapped, learned and shaped by machines and algorithms, yet they can also be deeply unpredictable and their interactions complex, beyond the (current) understanding of AI. It was clear that some of the issues posed by industry could not be solved by maths alone. Social science also has a role in directly challenging the often sweeping conclusions that have been made from and about Big Data too as danah boyd and Kate Crawford** (2015) write:

‘we must ask difficult questions of Big Data’s models of intelligibility before they crystallize into new orthodoxies’

Social science can offer valuable insight, working with other disciplines feeding into both these known and unknown strands.

At the break I managed to get a chance to speak to one of the presenters Abi Giles-Haigh, alumni of Newcastle University who now works as Head of Data Science at North-East based company Caspian. I told her I was there as a bit of an outlier and how pleased I was that she mentioned in her presentation how important the different interdisciplinary aspects were to her team (pulling from diverse areas such as psychology, sociology,  statistics and computing). She nodded and said ‘ultimately, I see us all as data scientists, no matter where we sit’.

There are an infinite number of nodes, structures and complex interactions that underpin everyday life which social science can help interrogate and interpret. I look forward to future joints events with the ESRC, EPSRC and NODES to explore the possibilities of collaboration and where areas of knowledge and interests overlap. If we are all going to be data scientists, this seems like the best place to start.

**cited in Papacharissi, Z (2015) The unbearable lightness of information and the impossible gravitas of knowledge: Big Data and the makings of a digital orality,  Media, Culture, Society Vol 37, Issue 7, pp. 1095 – 1100