Research, ‘impact’ and an interesting ethical issue

-My research is being funded through an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Early Career Leadership Fellowship. These opportunities, as the AHRC website outlines, are provided to enable researchers to ‘carry out individual research which has the potential to generate a transformative impact on their discipline’. The ambition for this scheme is that researchers and research findings make a contribution within their specific fields, but also ‘act as advocates for the value and benefits of arts and humanities research to publics beyond academia’.   Although I am not employed by a university, I was eligible to apply for this funding as Tate (where I work) is designated as an Independent Research Organisation, which means that the gallery is recognised by the AHRC as having the capacity to carry out research in-house, independent of a university.

The differences between my status as a practitioner researcher working in a cultural organisation and a university academic undertaking research were on my mind on Monday as I attended a conference organised by the AHRC for current Fellows. The day provided an opportunity for us all to meet each other, share details of our research and hear presentations from researchers on topics that included working with the media and how best to support research assistants. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of the range of topics the AHRC funds – from human-forest relations to Jazz on BBCTV – and in equal measures daunting and reassuring to compare with other researchers (all of whom are university-based) what we were doing, how we were going about it and what we hoped to get out of it.
In the afternoon, I listened to a engrossing presentation given by Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Architecture at the University of Kent who is temporarily based at the Houses of Parliament. He is embedded in the team who are restoring the historic Palace of Westminster researching the original Victorian ventilation system. Whilst providing riveting insights into the architecture of the building, the focus of Dr Schoenefeldt’s talk was on generating ‘impact’ from research. Impact is understood by the AHRC to be the way in which research influences and makes a difference to individuals and communities and adds value in the world. In the case of Dr Schoenefeldt’s research, impact has taken the form of journal articles, a book, articles in professional journals and seminars that are informing the fields of academia, architecture and conservation. Perhaps most significantly, his research is directly feeding into Parliamentary decision making on the restoration process itself. He mapped out in a slide what his leadership role is in different fields and how the various fields interact.

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Dr Schoenefeldt also talked about the relationship between academic and professional contexts and how research can feed into ‘real life’ projects.  He outlined a nine stage thinking process to determine how we could identify the relationship between research and its wider application in our projects.

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In a conversation with him and other Fellows following this talk some different views emerged of what constituted academic research and research undertaken in practice or vocational contexts. Dr Schoenefeldt recognised, as an architect, that practitioners are engaged in research all the time and saw his work as connecting to and intertwining with that research. Similarly Dr Sorcha O’Brien from the University of Kingston, whose research is looking at the influence of rural electrification on the lives of rural Irish housewives in the 1950s and 60s is working collaboratively with curators at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in in Castlebar, County Mayo on an exhibition.  She too was clear that she was combining her’s and the museum professionals’ research. In both of these cases it was not so much a question of ‘impact’ in the sense that research undertaken by an academic is done and dusted and then applied in a practice setting.  Their research appeared more as a joint sharing of knowledge over time toward a common goal.

Yet for other academics in this conversation, all of whom were keen to have their research make a difference in the world, working alongside practitioners or policy makers during the research process did not appear to be so straightforward.  For instance, one colleague talked about the challenge of even starting conversations with policy makers and that making the time that is needed to develop relationships and build trust is not always possible.

This last observation is not meant as a criticism of those researchers, but I mention it because the exchange prompted me to think that, as a practitioner researcher based in a cultural organisation, crossing the boundary between the academic and practice context is relatively easy. My work environment and close professional relationships align towards practice and uppermost in my mind is for this research to shape museum policy and activity. Also, not working in a university means currently I am not accountable to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions and which determines the allocation of university research funding.  The REF is based on an accountability system determined in part by the quantity and quality of scholarly publications and other research and although impact is also assessed, academic colleagues I have spoken to have acknowledged that they feel they need to prioritise academic research outputs that can be counted towards the REF, as this has a significant bearing on their career progression. My professional development, in contrast, is predicated primarily on how my research and activity directly improves practice as well as how it is received in academic circles.  Our motivations, therefore, are slightly different.

However, the embedded position of the practitioner-researcher brings issues with it that university-based colleagues might not have to negotiate. In a conversation on the day of the seminar with an academic colleague, I mentioned that my place of work – Tate – was one of the case studies for my research. Her response, said with a smile, was ‘will you still have a job at the end of it?’ This question, albeit light-hearted, raised the key issue of how I maintain a sufficient critical distance and detached position to be able to report on my findings openly and honestly. It reinforced the need for me to consider at all times the ethical implications of a research project that involves close colleagues and to be mindful constantly of my own position as a researcher attempting to make sense of and interpret mine and others’ experiences, situations and phenomena from within the practice itself.

I am giving considerable thought to these issues and am finding reassurance in the fact that I am locating my case studies within a wider theoretical context.  I am also researching with and not on my fellow practitioners, with whom I can discuss these concerns as the research progresses, as well as testing my findings with my academic mentor and other critical friends who are generously helping and advising me on the way.  Later on in the project I will interrogate provisional findings with a wider group of university and museum-based colleagues to test ideas and gather feedback.  By being as conscientious, open and transparent as I can, sharing, testing and reviewing, I hope to draw on the best of both worlds – the immersed condition of the practitioner, balanced by the scholarly rigour of the academic researcher.

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