Policymakers' duty in cash-for-impact plan

Scholar says Government must understand social science better in run-up to REF, writes Zoë Corbyn

July 16, 2009

Policymakers have a duty to improve the way they commission and use social science research if the impact of academic work is to be used to determine the distribution of funding, a veteran social scientist has said.

Chris Bellamy, emeritus professor of public administration at Nottingham Trent University, said the proposals to measure impact in the forthcoming research excellence framework would mean new responsibilities for the Government as well as scholars.

Speaking in advance of a conference on the topic, organised by the Academy of Social Sciences and due to take place on 16 July, she said that although much of the focus had been on the need for academics to ensure they produce and disseminate work with tangible effects, policymakers had to up their game, too.

Professor Bellamy added that they needed to spell out more clearly what they wanted from the academy, and called on the Economic and Social Research Council to broker a dialogue with the Government to make this happen.

"If the Government wants to be a more powerful player in shaping the kind of research that is done ... it has some reciprocal duty. It needs to make sure that those commissioning research are trained to understand what social science research is, its methods and the limits of what we can find out," she said.

As an example of the frustrations that researchers faced, she cited the fact that qualitative work or small-scale studies were not always recognised by policymakers, despite providing excellent information. Professor Bellamy said that all too often the attitude was: "How can I possibly go to the minister with the findings when you researchers haven't actually talked to thousands of people?"

She also questioned how the impact of social science research could realistically be assessed by the REF, other than through academics saying when they had been invited to conferences or to appear before committees.

"In the end, the only person who can tell whether something has had an impact is the person on whom it has the impact," she said.

"Can the REF do anything other than ask a department to come up with a range of proxies that are really quite different from the thing that you are trying to measure? I think the jury is out."

Despite her reservations, she said that social scientists who accepted public money had a responsibility to ensure they were achieving a social good. However, she cautioned that not all social science would necessarily have an "impact".

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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