The ever-lengthening research chain

30 Nov

The research process is complicated and can involve a chain of many actors. We have the researcher, and the researched. But to get to the researched we might have to use gatekeepers or translators. And there might be a donor involved who is funding the work and who asks for regular updates. And perhaps there is a University ethics committee and the University insurers. So the research chain involves a number of parties who stand between the researcher and the researched. Each must be approached in different ways and will have different demands: whether it is form-filling for an ethics committee or payment for a translator.

But the already lengthy research chain seems to be getting longer, especially in relation to field research. The difficulty with this is that the relationship between the researcher and the researched can grow more complex and distant. This can have obvious consequences for the research process and findings. The research process may take longer, meaning that the research findings are delayed and miss having academic and policy relevance; debates may have moved on by the time the research results are available. Moreover, with more steps between the researcher and the researched there are more opportunities for misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Three new additions to the research process have recently come onto my radar. There are reasons why they are have appeared in the research process, but it is not clear that they lead to better, more efficient, or more timely research.

The first new addition comes in the form of private risk assessment companies hired by universities to vet fieldwork proposals. I learned about this from a colleague at another UK university and I am unsure about how widespread this is. Basically, the university asks the risk assessment firm to report on the safety of the field work aspects of a proposed research project. One can see why universities, as responsible employers, would want to ensure the safety of their employees, students and anyone involved in the research process (e.g., translators or interviewees). But the hiring of a private company seems a new departure (to me at any rate). It is, of course, in keeping with the neo-liberal movement of many universities. But it seems like a wasteful initiative. Most risk assessment information is available from open sources such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories or http://www.inform-index.org. Crucially though, the hiring of risk assessment firms is a statement by university managers that they do not trust the university academic staff to make judgments on field work. Universities, after all, are about knowledge and often they contain individuals and groups with long experience of particular contexts. Yet, if a private risk assessment company is hired the University is saying: we will overlook the accumulated knowledge of our own research staff (many of whom will be area specialists) and outsource this to a firm with access to google.

The second addition to the research chain comes in the form of the spate of knowledge transfer and impact acceleration officers that have been hired by UK universities. This is a completely superfluous tier of people who are a product of universities attempting to ‘game the system’. Let me explain. Central government in the UK runs quality censuses of university research called the Research Excellence Framework. Basically, it rates research output quality every six or so years. A key part of research excellence, according to the government census, is ‘impact’ or the policy and real world relevance of research. Universities seek to maximize their ‘impact’ score by hiring impact officers who steer research proposals and projects towards impact. This does not necessarily harm the research. At the same time though, it does not necessarily assist it by making it better. It is simply an exercise in political economy whereby governments set targets and universities try to meet them. The knock-on effect is that yet another layer is added to the research chain.

The third addition to the research chain are private sector companies and self-employed individuals that seek to help with research. Again this is hardly new, but it does seem more prominent and is driven, in part, by the risk adverse nature of universities. With universities and their insurers frowning upon field work in conflict-affected societies, researchers look for innovative ways in which conduct research. One such way is to see if technology can help. So, for example, researchers might be able to use mobile phone surveys in areas in which it would be too dangerous to conduct face-to-face interviews. Private sector companies have noticed this niche and now offer their services to university researchers. They bring with them a corporate language, the signing of business contracts, and a choice of services (silver, gold and platinum in one service I am familiar with) according to the project budget.

In other contexts, I have noticed ‘community mobilisers’ or individuals who have become used to visiting researchers coming to a particular locality and their need for focus groups and interviewees. This often occurs in heavily researched areas. The community mobilisers exist because there is a demand for them. They ‘mobilise’ in the sense of gathering people for a focus group.

The upshot of all of this is that the research chain is lengthening. Whether it is insurers or private risk assessment companies, the distance between the researcher and the researched is becoming greater. The reasons behind this are not always connected with facilitating better research. Indeed, having heard a number of colleagues talk about their frustrations at university interference with their research agenda, I suspect that we may see increasing numbers of academics conducting their own research as quietly as possible – avoiding ethics committees and the research impact tsars simply because it is too onerous, and adds little to the research process. There are all sorts of dangers along this path (not least connected to ethics and the danger of ‘rogue’ researchers) but if the process is too complicated, it will be rational to avoid complications.

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One Response to “The ever-lengthening research chain”

  1. alanbullion 08/12/2014 at 9:00 pm #

    Just had a few pints with David Chandler at the Harp in London, purely random meeting…. ________________________________

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