Academics are concerned that government is trying to control the research agenda. Malcolm Wicks argues for dismantling the barriers of suspicion
Some years ago, when I was a researcher on family policy issues, I devoted much time and not a little ingenuity to trying to get the lessons from research across to ministers and policy advisers.
Now, as the minister responsible for developing the Department for Education and Employment's research strategy, I find some irony in the fact that I spend much time encouraging researchers to engage with the vital issues this government is trying to address and attempting to break down the barriers between researchers and the politicians who would like to apply the lessons of their research.
It is, of course, essential that academic researchers are able to challenge and criticise, to debunk and question. As education secretary David Blunkett said in his recent lecture to the Economic and Social Research Council: "We need academics who can challenge fundamental assumptions and orthodoxies. If academics do not address this, it is difficult to think of anyone else who will."
It is important too that the funding mechanisms for research should protect and enshrine this task. This applies as much to applied work directly commissioned by government departments as that funded by the research councils and funding councils. We have revised the wording of our research contracts to leave no doubt that researchers have the right to publish their findings irrespective of whether or not they are critical of our policies.
Critical independence is a necessary condition of social research, but is it really a sufficient ambition? I became involved in social research because I felt it could and should make a positive difference to the quality of people's lives. And, yes, I hoped that my research on hypothermia among old people in the 1970s would embarrass government into action. It would be a tragedy, however, if researchers remain trapped by the defensive mind-sets they were driven into in the 1980s and early 1990s, unwilling to break out and engage in a constructive way with the key issues that affect people's life chances. This is, of course, particularly vital in research into education and schooling where many have criticised the gulf between education researchers and policy-makers.
Government policy as well as education practice needs to be informed by sound evidence. Equally, the work of researchers ought to be informed by the real dilemmas faced by policy-makers and practitioners as they struggle to find what works. Recent research on effective strategies for tackling bullying in schools and the research on young people that informed the Social Exclusion Unit's Bridging the Gap report show what can be achieved.
The challenge is to dismantle the barriers of suspicion or simply those of indifference and build greater interchange between researchers and the users of research.
How can we do this? First, the DFEE is giving a longer-term commitment to research by funding centres dedicated to research into key issues.
The first two are examining the wider benefits of learning and the economics of education. A centre investigating the role of information technology in education will follow later this year.
Second, the National Forum for Educational Research, chaired by Michael Peckham, is bringing together representatives from the worlds of teaching, research, research funding, central government and local education authorities to identify the priority areas for education research, to build research capacity and coordinate funding as well as establishing criteria for assessing the quality of research. The forum is central to achieving the greater trust and engagement we so badly need.
Third, in order to make the lessons from research more accessible we have asked the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education to establish an innovative research-evidence centre, modelled on the Cochrane Collaboration in health research. It will set up a database of studies, initially focusing on education and then moving on to employment research and will organise systematic reviews of evidence to provide easy-to-understand summaries of what existing research can tell us.
I know that some will see in this the dark machinations of control-freakery, of government trying to control and constrain the research agenda. But the more that research engages with the vital issues, the more we as politicians will find it difficult to dismiss or ignore the sometimes uncomfortable results of soundly based evidence.
If we can get the right mechanisms in place, there are now unparalleled opportunities for good research to have a significant impact on policy and practice. I hope the research community will join with us to ensure that research can and does make a difference.
Malcolm Wicks is minister for lifelong learning.
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