Delivering change through interdisciplinary research

by Mark Reed

 

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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. [Read more…]


Good plan: Birmingham built environment research climbs University league tables

rufopolyResearch from the Birmingham School of the Built Environment (BSBE) at Birmingham City University has made significant progress in University rankings published today.

Academics who were submitted to the Architecture, Built Environment and Planning panel have moved from the bottom quartile to the middle rank of planning schools in the UK, according to results published today as part of the Government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is used to distribute funding to the best Universities. The group increased the number of publications graded as internationally significant or leading (3 or 4 out of 4 stars) rose from from 25% in the last assessment to 65% today.

One of the highlights of the School’s submission was a 3 star impact case study about the creation of new markets to enable companies to pay for restoring damaged peat bogs in return for the carbon that is saved. The Government launched a pilot UK Peatland Code last year based on this work in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and water companies now regularly restore peat bogs to reduce water treatment costs. Also featured in the submission was a board game called “Rufopoly”, designed to raise awareness and support decisions in rural areas under pressure from housing development around cities. The training game has just received additional funding from the Government’s Economic and Social Research Council, and has now been played by policy-makers, businesses, voluntary bodies and schools across the UK, Sweden and the USA. Professors Mark Reed and Alister Scott who led the development of these case studies, also played a major role in the follow-up to the Government’s National Ecosystem Assessment, providing policy-makers and practitioners with tools to better take account of nature in their decisions, including the cultural values that communities share for the natural environment. Prof David Edwards from BSBE was also part of a highly scoring submission from the Business School, which included a 3-4 star impact case study based on his work on improving the health and safety of vibrating plant machinery.

Professor Peter Larkham, the School’s Associate Head (Research), welcomed this clear and externally-accredited evidence of the high quality and impact of their research in planning and the environment:

“This is a tremendous endorsement of our achievements in producing high-quality research which not only influences national and local government policy, and helps other agencies and property developers, but it demonstrates that our undergraduate and Masters courses are up-to-date, underpinned by the best research”.


Ethics, Universities and Research

by Peter Larkham

We have just ended the second successful BCU Ethics Conference, this time focusing on research ethics including four guest speakers on concepts of research ethics, researching children, and fraud in research. The event was lively and informative. The presentations will be available to BCU staff and students on the iCity research community tab (https://icity.bcu.ac.uk/Research-Community).

These are not trivial issues. Ethics should permeate all of the activities of a modern university, not just its externally-facing research. But research, at all levels from undergraduate projects to PhDs and major externally-funded projects, needs to be carefully designed to be ethically robust. Such research protects those involved in the research, whether they might be participants, the researchers themselves and even the reputation of the institution and funding bodies. This is most significant where these might be vulnerable people, such as young people and others for whom the concept of “informed consent” is problematic; and, of course, young researchers are also vulnerable to undue pressures.

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Universities, including our own, have woken up to at least some of these issues in recent years, and have some policies and procedures in place. But we need to ensure that these are both appropriate and suitably followed. Ethics review should not be simply a “tick box” one-off exercise. Research evolves over time, and some research takes years: we might need a continued engagement with ethics concepts and procedures. Ethics awareness needs to be embedded more deeply in staff activities from induction onwards; and likewise in our teaching, at all levels. Our business and administrative practices, and overall focus and mission statement, should explicitly refer to ethics. We should aspire to be known as an ethically-robust university. In that way we could attract research partners, funding, professional and business collaborators, and better students.

I hope that we’ll have another conference, perhaps sooner than this time next year. Perhaps the focus should be on how we embed ethics in our teaching and learning activities. That might attract those who decided not to come today, saying that they weren’t researchers, so research ethics were irrelevant to them!

Peter J Larkham is Professor of Planning in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment, and has led the concluding sessions of both BCU Ethics conferences. His most-cited publication is on the treatment of plagiarism (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/cjfh/2002/00000026/00000004/art00005), though he doesn’t think that it’s his best paper!


Research and the Academic World

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by Peter Larkham

Mark Reed makes some provocative statements about academics, research, excellence and impact.  He is quite right to emphasise these points at a time when the academic world is changing fast.  We need to be flexible and change, too.  All academics worth their salary would agree that we need to demonstrate the highest possible standards in research quality output, research impact, and teaching.  But not all excel at all three.

Research quality output: this is the older yardstick by which researchers are measured.  Even so, it seems strangely difficult to secure sound and shared assessments of quality; in fact it sometimes seems to depend how an assessor was feeling that morning.  This gives us some concern when we think about how the next government-driven review, the Research Excellence Framework, will review this aspect of excellence.  The process lacks transparency and detailed feedback – both potentially compromise the quality of the process and its outcomes.  We often feel that we can recognise value and excellence, but just what is it that distinguishes the very best – what one assessor once described as “Nobel-level”?  But there aren’t Nobel prizes in the built environment!  So are all disciplines assessing [Read more…]


Why isn’t our research having a greater impact on UK society?

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by Mark Reed

Throughout history, civilisations have risen and fallen on their ability to generate new knowledge and innovate in the face of major challenges. In the UK, many of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy are knowledge-based. This is made very clear at the Birmingham Made Me Design Expo 2013 at Millennium Point this month, which argues that design and innovation are drivers of wealth creation. This thirst for knowledge goes right to the heart of Government, with policy-makers increasingly striving to make “evidence-based” decisions on controversial issues like the designation of Marine Protected Areas and the creation of new markets for peatland carbon – issues that my colleagues and I at Birmingham School of the Built Environment are researching.

I think that we, as researchers, often take for granted that we have privileged access to the latest knowledge, forgetting that this is often locked behind publisher pay-walls. We have the skills to generate answers to some of the biggest questions facing society, and yet as a research community in the UK, only a small proportion of our work actually provides answers to these big questions. So why isn’t more UK research having a greater impact on society?

[Read more…]