The Retreat of the State and the Future of Social Science

Baars, S. (2014). The retreat of the state and the future of social science. Management in Education, 28(1) 6-11.
Amidst deep cuts to public spending, the UK Coalition government announced in 2010 that it would be substantially reducing its subsidy of social science within higher education. As part of the same deficit reduction strategy, the government is cutting funding to local authorities, disproportionately hitting urban councils in the most deprived areas of the country. Just as evidence is needed on the impact of cuts on local communities, social science is in need of a renewed public agenda to legitimate its activities. This article argues that the retreat of the state creates an opportunity, and an imperative, for social science to adopt an embedded approach to research, which addresses publicly important questions, involves the public in the research process and engages the public with its findings. The article offers critical reflections on conducting and facilitating embedded research and how this approach to social science may help to secure the future of the discipline.
It is important to note that this paper is a UK paper by a UK researcher reflecting on the UK experience. Other jurisdictions might have different perspectives.
This paper draws a parallel between the decline in funding for research in the social sciences and the decline in funding for local authorities (=municipalities) to deliver social services to their most vulnerable citizens. The author states that this parallel creates an imperative for social scientists to engage with the public by making the social sciences relevant to local communities. Embedded research is one way to enable this engagement.
The paper establishes the potential importance of social sciences to society but places the onus on social scientists themselves to turn this potential into relevance. « Despite the innovations of participatory researchers (Chambers, 2007), academic social science remains a discipline whose output is primarily circulated and articulated in a way that singularly alienates wider society. The public should not be expected to engage with a discipline that: disseminates its findings almost exclusively to an academic audience through academic conferences and journals; communicates in a language that is often unnecessarily obscure; and measures its impact by counting the number of times academics mention the ideas of other academics. »
Furthermore there are new tools for society to use when engaging with social science research. « Meanwhile, the rapidly increasing availability of open data and open online tools with which to analyse this data, the increasing prevalence of collaborative ‘hack days’, and the rise of data visualisation have transformed the way in which the public can engage with social-scientific questions and their search for answers. »
Essentially, society has the tools to engage with social science research but the social scientists are not allowing society to play in their sand box. This risks the public irrelevancy of the social sciences. If the public is not your ally then you are left to the mercy of governments who are making decisions about allocation of research funding. This suggests that researchers should be looking close to home in order to generate research impacts. However, REF 2014 rewards examples of the international impacts of research. The paper does not address this policy disconnect as institutions seek to maximize global impacts of research and possibly overlook the opportunities to either support or celebrate local impacts of research.
The author then discusses « embedded research ». This is a new term for me but its meaning is intuitive. « Embedded research refers to the placement of academic social scientists in a setting external to the university in order to support, monitor or evaluate some aspect of an institution, organisation or policy in practice, as well as deliver knowledge outputs for the researcher. In this way, embedded research addresses publicly important questions, involves the public in the research process and engages the public with its findings. » This is a new flavour of knowledge mobilization. It reads to me more like research in service to the community but since it delivers knowledge outputs for the researcher then benefits accrue to both community and academic partners. Depending on the level of involvement of the community partner in the research process this could also be described as co-production or integrated knowledge mobilization.
An interesting additional research benefit was described. « Demonstrating that I was able and willing to deliver tangible benefits to the school and its students, albeit modest ones, helped to build a relationship of trust and reciprocity with staff, which ultimately improved the quality of my access to participants and, as a result, the quality of my data. » It is important to note that trusted relationships can help to increase the quality of data collected and thus increase the quality of the research.
The author also approaches but doesn’t quite get to the issue of advocacy. « By encouraging …students, as embedded researchers, to think about why their partner organisation might be interested in the particular research question put in front of them, students’ attention was drawn to the fact that every question is part of an agenda, and that the skill of being able to respond to a question without responding to the agenda behind it is a crucial and complex one. » Key here is « the skill of being able to respond to a question without responding to the agenda behind it« . This raises questions about knowledge mobilization and advocacy; about researchers as dispassionate observers compared to becoming actively involved in an organization’s own agenda.
The paper ends with a call to action. « With the state’s retreat from the discipline grounded in a view of social science as having limited public worth, it is vital that researchers identify a clear strategy for reengaging their activities with the society they study. With some of the most deprived communities in the country also facing substantial spending cuts, an opportunity for public engagement emerges from the need to evidence the effect of this austerity at a local level, and embedded research provides a practical model for doing so. »
Questions for brokers:

  • Since REF (a tool of HEFCE) privileges international over local impacts how might the importance of local impacts be made relevant to national decision makers and thus the research of universities be made relevant to their local communities?
  • This paper is placed in the UK context. Is your experience in your country the same or different? If your country doesn’t have a national research assessment exercise like the REF (and most do not) does this make it easier to strive for local impacts or harder because there is little attention paid to the extra academic impacts of research?
  • Advocacy vs. knowledge mobilization: can an engaged scholar remain detached from the communities with which s/he is engaged?
  • What structures do universities need to be able to maximize the community impacts of research? For some more information on this including research involving York Unviersity’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit please see the following article or the article’s ResearchSnapshotattached below:

Nichols, N., Phipps, D., Provencal, J., Hewitt, A. (2013) Knowledge Mobilization, Collaboration, and Social Innovation: Leveraging Investments in Higher Education. Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research. 4(1): 25 – 42.
ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.