Big picture, locally drawn

July 29, 2010

The debate on maximising the impact of research at this year's research methods festival ("'Pure' may be too simple, warn social scientists", 15 July), in which I participated, tackled the issue of "pathways to impact", a priority of Research Councils UK ("Academics attack RCUK's 'dogmatic stance' in refusing to rethink impact", 15 July).

I wish to clarify two points attributed to me by your coverage: first, that I undertake communication work for which I am not trained, and second, that the Economic and Social Research Council needs to think about how it will support people to communicate research.

There is plenty of training available for "communicating research", and the ESRC has devoted programmes to disseminating academic findings. I welcome and have benefited directly from these. My concern is that current initiatives may be overly focused on "high-level" impact and do not sufficiently take into account the time required for social scientists to engage with and affect the societies we study.

The "pathways" that dominated the debate at the festival were, indeed, direct links to high-level politicians and policymakers. Although this type of communication can be important, and the collaboration of academics and think tanks a potentially fruitful way to achieve it, direct policy or political impact is not necessarily the most appropriate way to maximise the impact of social science research. In particular, change in social attitudes, for example around race and migration (the topic of my research), is very gradual and place-specific. The potential for the long-term impact of research on politically sensitive topics may well be maximised through local, targeted dissemination rather than national media coverage or high-level political meetings.

Nissa Finney, ESRC research Fellow, University of Manchester.

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