The relationship between universities and society has changed in recent years. In most developed economies the university has become a key strand in the triple helix, complementing the added value to the economy provided by business and government elements. Universities provide training and expertise as well as an infrastructure for high quality research, and thus such research is no longer to be thought of as pure, neutral and uncorrupted by the inconvenience and practicalities of life, if indeed it ever had such higher aspirations.
In the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has introduced an impact element for evaluating university research in the next round of assessment in 2014, called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Universities will need to show that their research is not just addressing the needs of academics (it needs to do that too!) nor just available to the general public or passively disseminated to “stakeholders” but that the research has informed and impacted business, policy makers and other key decision makers in a decisive way.
Climate change research has the potential to change the way different organisations conduct themselves, make policy and change behaviour from the individual to the largest corporation and government in the world. This raises a small number of important questions:
A) What are climate-change researchers/research groups doing to engage with (for lack of a better word) stakeholders?
B) What should climate change research groups be doing to engage with stakeholders?
C) What incentives can be used to make the answer to question A and B the same?
Let’s begin with question B. Those opposed to doing anything to mitigate possible effects of climate change will say that they should stay out of policy making or producing propaganda for activists. Those in favour of addressing the problems they perceive to be the key threat in our lifetime, generally favour climate researchers becoming, if not advocates for a programme and activists for its implementation, then working closely with such groups. The answer to this question is thus political, and will depend as much on ideology as on the responsibility such knowledge implies.
It is not a straightforward debate but I’ll use an analogy to at least illustrate my point. Imagine for a moment that smoking caused lung cancer – would it be incumbent upon a researcher with findings indicating a clear link between the activity and the disease to petition for a change in tobacco advertising and marketing, the taxation and regulation of tobacco and the dissemination of research findings on the links between tobacco and health in the most appropriate forms for different groups within society? Or, should they merely inform each other of their findings at conferences and leave it to the tobacco industry to address the concerns of academics and use their financial clout to develop new (and non addictive) products much less detrimental to the health of the average smoker as a matter of urgency. No disrespect to tobacco companies, but I’d choose A.
In this way, if climate change is a threat globally, with real impacts on populations, then my answer to question B is to do everything possible. Today a topic, theme or campaign must compete with thousands of other worthy campaigns from disease, poverty, discrimination, injustice or new opportunity to perhaps less worthy claims on our attention such as celebrity culture. Research centres receive a lot of money to undertake research and produce excellent ideas – these should not be the preserve of the academy, but should use these research resources to address the needs of all interested groups (including sceptics and opponents). For different types of research, the engagement process will be different (see last month's post), but a simple way of doing so in seven stages might be:
- Identify key groups and individuals stakeholders and enrol them into the project
- Identify the methods and channels most suitable to their requirements
- Ensure that the research team is aware of the objectives, methods and channels, and contribute effectively and fittingly to them
- Ensure that the research is never compromised but only enhanced by communication issues
- Develop appropriate content to be disseminated through these channels as part of the research agenda
- Ensure regular flows of information punctuated with targeted dissemination to maximise the impact of the research
- Ensure adequate opportunity for feedback from stakeholders on both methods and content and introduce modifications as appropriate
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) say that incentives of improved scores for research groups (in 20% of the total assessment) who have published their research findings in good journals AND can show that these findings have had a real impact on non academic organisations in tangible ways (businesses choosing a new way of doing a job, new products coming to market, policy makers changing a law including an extra variable in their calculation. In my view this is a good start, although, of course, it might actually make a research group LESS likely to engage with “the public” as they need to spend more time working with a business or a policy maker to make their research “count” in the assessment (although there will be room elsewhere in the assessment to explain their influence on that landscape too). Academics need to know that they will get academic rewards (things used which typically determine promotion in the university system); however, 4CMR is committed to engagement irrespective of academic rewards, but simply because the extra time and costs of undertaking a fully stakeholder-engaged approach to research makes the research better and more relevant AND so the resources are spent wisely. Sounds like propaganda? I suggest you spend some time looking at our website and get in touch with us and we will try to convince you further.