Delivering change through interdisciplinary research

by Mark Reed



The 2014 Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF) results, published today, revealed that 90% of Birmingham City University’s submission was judged to have delivered ‘outstanding’ or ‘very considerable’ impact on society. This is evidence that the research landscape is rapidly changing and I believe that post-1992 Universities like BCU are ideally positioned to reap significant rewards from this new landscape in the years to come.

Essentially, the case for research funding in a time of economic austerity is based on the theory that research promotes competitiveness and growth. As research funders increasingly focus on demonstrating the value of research to society, there has been a rise in the number of directed research calls available to UK researchers. It is still possible to catch sight of blue skies as part of this research landscape, but they are increasingly being coloured by the rising sun of the impact agenda.
Calls for directed research typically focus on real world challenges, and these have a habit of being messy. The sorts of global challenges we face today do not respect disciplinary boundaries. For example, how to make our society more sustainable in the face of rising urban populations and challenges such as climate change? How to change attitudes, lifestyles and the things we choose to eat, to enhance health and quality of life?

Collaborating across traditional disciplinary boundaries isn’t just something nice that some of us might want to do. It is a necessity if we are to meet the challenges that have arisen in modern societies.

We need to learn how to do research as individuals, and as an institution, that is not just multi-disciplinary, or even interdisciplinary. We need to learn how to co-produce knowledge in collaboration with the people who will actually benefit from our research – something that’s often called transdisciplinarity.

This is where I believe BCU is really on the front foot, as one of Britain’s leading edge practice-based Universities. Whether for the city, the region or working worldwide, what I think we do best is applied research that delivers answers to real-world challenges at the same time as providing the academic insights that move knowledge forward in individual disciplines.

Unlike my experience in research-intensive Universities, I have yet to come across a colleague at BCU who only wants to develop new theories or methods. I have met plenty of people developing exciting new theoretical insights and cutting edge methods, but it is always for a clear purpose. We don’t produce knowledge for its own sake, we produce knowledge that seeks an impact.

And it is this impact agenda that I believe is our real opportunity over the coming years. Impact represents 20% of the scores reported today under the Government’s Research Excellence Framework. Some in Government would like this to increase to 50% for the next assessment in 2020 – in reality it is likely to be somewhere between 20 and 50%. To put this into perspective, REF grades outputs from 1 to 4 stars, with 4* being internationally leading. A 4* impact case study is rated as equivalent to twenty 4* papers.

The fact that these case studies could be worth far more next time round may be perceived as a threat by many research-intensive Universities who have traditionally relied on research papers for their rankings and incomes. I believe it is an opportunity for many of the post-1992 Universities who have a smaller research base, but a long history of community and societal engagement, and like BCU, a mission that has always had impact at its core.

Thomas Kuhn, analysing the history of science, used the term “paradigm shift” to describe step changes in worldview that occur after a new discovery or way of thinking. I believe that the impact agenda has, over the last decade, begun to radically alter the dominant worldview of the nature of research and its purpose. I believe that we are in the midst of this paradigm shift, and that the REF impact scores published today are both evidence of and response to this shift.

Read more about our top-rated impact case study on developing markets for peatland ecosystem services:

About Mark

I am an interdisciplinary environmental researcher specialising in knowledge exchange, stakeholder participation and the value of nature. I do training to help embed impact into research and help people adapt to environmental change in mountains and deserts around the world.

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