Summary of discussion, ‘Types of knowledge’

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date

Our second workshop in the series explored whether current approaches to impact address the demands for interdisciplinary approaches and calls for more diversity. It also engaged with the growing awareness of the importance of capturing citizen, patient or user perspectives of those affected by policy.

Engaging with communities

The first topic addressed was public engagement. Ellen Stewart set out a number of avenues for developing policy engagement, but warned that supporting public engagement comes with risks and challenges. Seeking to engage a broader set of voices in research, including vulnerable and marginalised voices and communities, brings additional, sometimes very serious, ethical implications and resource requirement that must be built into funding and projects. She argued for the need to think about the underlying barriers and focus on engagement research as a way of working, rather, than seeing it as a series of events. The aim should be to create enabling environments in academia. Suggestions on how to achieve this include training researchers, reflecting on rewarding the right kind of behaviour in academia, building relationships of trust as well as ensuring that funding schemes have the space for experimentation and innovation for engagement.  

The discussion highlighted the multifaceted reasons why researchers engage with communities: it may be about empowering voices that are marginalised; but more cynically, demonstrating public engagement can be a means of bolstering research ideas and proposals with policy-makers. There is a need to be critical of institutionalised forms of public engagement that can lead to a narrow vision of best practice in public engagement, less attentive to the broader politics of decision-making.

The discussion also briefly engaged with how public and community engagement is funded. Discussants pointed out that there is insufficient funding to carry out anything substantive – though it was also suggested that much of what may be considered public engagement is blended in with general grant funding.

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

Disciplinary differences

The discussion then turned to how different disciplines engage with and approach impact, and to interdisciplinarity. Eleonora Belfiore suggested that from the perspective of the Arts and Humanities, policy impact remains secondary, viewed mainly through the prism of having to justify funding for the sector. When the impact agenda was introduced, arts and humanities were much more invigorated by engagement than policy impact, which to an extent continues to be viewed as rhetorical ammunition to secure funding in a context in which arts and humanities have lost influence and prestige within the broader policy environment.

The discussion on disciplinary confidence linked in with perceived status hierarchies of academic fields, and how these perceptions shape the way academics and policy-makers engage with impact. It also speaks to which forms of knowledge are favoured by policy-makers, with some areas less valued. Public management philosophies tend to favour quantitative approaches based on rational choice or behavioural models of behaviour. This leads to a predominance of data science and behavioural science, whereas some areas of social sciences and much of the arts and humanities do not garner the same status. This calls for more interdisciplinarity – see for instance Stephen Reicher’s blog. Eleonora Belfiore made a plea for much stronger dialogue between academics who analyse policy-making and decision-making processes and academics in the arts and humanities, with a view to combining expertise on the messiness of policy-making with the methodologies and approaches of the arts and humanities that can potentially contribute to the enlightenment function of knowledge (Carol Weiss).

There is a need for a much broader understanding of the kinds of impacts that different disciplines may have.

This issue of how different forms of knowledge and expertise are valued also raises questions around what happens if forms of lay expertise that stem from the lived experience are shunned or discarded because other forms of expertise attract more credence. This links back to the ethical implications of public engagement.

Inequalities and the selective use of knowledge

In turn, this fed into a third major theme of the workshop: critical approaches in research, and what happens to knowledge when it is not in synch with government policy objectives. Nasar Meer spoke of the concept of ‘epistemic ignorance’ as a means for understanding how policy-makers persistently ignore the data, evidence and policy recommendations in relation to racial inequality. In policy impact concerning racial inequalities, the challenge is not necessarily about improving the evidence or establishing channels for research policy engagement – there have been a succession of Parliamentary Inquiries on this topic already. Rather the absence of policy change stems from how governments receive and frame research. They do so in a manner that silences racial injustices, because there is a latent acceptance that racial injustice is an intrinsic feature of social systems as they are presently configured. In doing so, governments ignore the lived experiences reported and are not able or willing to fully put racial inequalities at the centre of their understanding of policy failure. To overcome this requires moving beyond transactional approaches to policy impact and thinking of different ways of influencing policy beyond conventional research-impact channels.

The discussion explored the tension between critical and emancipatory approaches to research, which aim to challenge and hold policy-makers to account, and the goal of informing policy through building relationships with government.

The challenge is to find ways in which governments and academia can work together in a manner that does not stifle either. These are all issues that are the focus of the third workshop, ‘Perspectives from Policy’.

The workshop also turned to how higher education institutions can tackle issues of equality and diversity within. Kayleigh Fawcett-Renberg called for a much more systematic approach to fostering diversity and inclusivity in higher education institutions (HEI). To do so, the role of knowledge mobilisers inside HEIs warrants much more attention. Policy knowledge mobilisers exist in a variety of structures and roles within universities. Their common feature is that they facilitate opening up the knowledge base and enable more accessible opportunities to engage research with policy. Acknowledging and supporting their specific skills and forms of knowledge can help foster policy engagement, support the capture of EDI data on their academic-policy engagements and challenge the dominant conception of expertise in HEI. Indeed, there is a need to think about how expertise is rewarded within HEI, an environment in which expertise and diversity are often pitted against each other instead of viewed as mutually reinforcing. 

Beyond the research/practice dichotomy

With a contribution that links back to the theoretical concerns about conceptualising policy impact discussed in the first workshop, Alis Oancea presented a new concept – research-impact nexuses. This concept implies a different understanding of how impact comes about than is assumed in the positivist, linear assumptions about change underpinning current impact assessment models. Research-impact nexuses are domains in which it is difficult to distinguish or demarcate between research itself, practice and research impact – the practice-based research-impact nexus. They are domains in which there is potential conflict between the aims and the values that underpin specific modes of research and the mainstream or top-down understandings underpinning metrics and indicators in current impact assessment frameworks. And they are domains in which there is a lot a difficulty or ambiguity in distinguishing between the pathways to impact and actual impact, such as the deeply collaborative and reflexive forms of research. She warned that these cannot – and should not – be codified in line with current assessment frameworks. Instead, there is a need to develop and sustain open, responsible, caring and diverse cultures of research and impact.

The workshop also discussed how best to guard against the risk of academia reproducing entrenched inequalities. There was a need to break down some of academia’s own barriers to diversity and inclusivity. Practically, this requires focusing on how institutions support and reward impact activity across different groups of researchers. It also entails moving beyond the frame of the ‘lone academic’ to consider the many actors in HEI that contribute to fostering and supporting impact in a much more systematic way. And it requires that more experimentation and innovation be built into funding streams. Many of these dimensions will be covered in workshop 5.

Dr Cleo Davies is a Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh on the project Rethinking Policy Impact.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.