“We are pleased to submit a response to the ESRC consultation “Informing the future strategic direction of the Economic and Social Research Council” on behalf of the Regional Studies Association. This response has been drafted by Board members informed by a wider set of contributions from RSA members.”

Sally Hardy CEO

Regional Studies Association

 

Informing the future strategic direction of the Economic and Social Research Council

Regional Studies Association (RSA) response:

 

Question 1: In which areas of activity, and/or in what ways, do you judge that the ESRC currently adds most value?

In broad terms ESRC adds most value by (a) facilitating and promoting world-class social science, (b) generating impact from social science research, (c) training new social science researchers, and (d) continuing to support internationalisation. It also has an important role as an advocate for (social) science.

The ESRC has made good progress in addressing many of the key themes under each of the three strategic priorities

The Regional Studies Association considers support for doctoral students (via the Doctoral Training Centres) and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) of vital importance. The development of the DTC model is working well and represents an advance on the previous approaches, which were more cumbersome. The 2009 Postgraduate and Training and Development Guidelines are effective.

ESRC adds value by funding research that has a strong scholarly contribution, that which develops new theory, supports the development of methodology and is not merely quasi-consulting. This is profoundly important.

 

Question 2: Looking ahead, and in the context of on-going funding constraints and our commitment to make best use of public funding, what would you like to see us doing differently, better, more or less of?

ESRC should continue to support researchers across the full career span, to produce an affective pipeline from PhDs to senior professors, through a small number of straightforward and clear schemes. According to feedback from RSA Members, providing applicants and HEIs with sufficient time to work up and support well thought through proposals is crucial, particularly when institutions now have significant demand management and internal peer review responsibilities.  We would like to see longer deadlines and more pre-warning of upcoming funding calls.

There is scope for a more coherent and integrated provision of support. RSA would like to see more scope for capacity building for social science research from doctoral through to mid-career as well as better linkages between ESRC investments and stronger links between DTCs, and other RCUK post-doctoral investments. With regard to post-project evaluation it would be helpful to ensure that the report template matches the project.

Within the fields of social sciences there is a growing consensus around the (public) value of research that is collaborative, problem-focused and cross-disciplinary. This is informed by the policy context, public opinion and the funding environment, but is also driven by the recognition that the social sciences are fundamentally ‘applied’ in nature, offering both observations on, and contributing to, the reproduction of society. Major trends in social sciences would appear to be driven by some of the implications of this agenda, that is problem and societal challenge focused research that draws on a wider range of disciplines than may have been common in the past. Research of this nature is also likely to involve closer working arrangements with third parties from each of the public, private and third sectors. As well as more collaborative, cross and inter-disciplinary grants it is also the case that truly cross-disciplinary research remains extremely difficult to deliver. There may be considerable value in training and development activity that addresses some of these challenges.

Whilst the ESRC has rightly placed more emphasis upon investments securing impact, it has not always been clear that the mechanisms for delivering impact are as robust as they might be. The experience of some colleagues has been that rapid turnaround funding direct from research users can often generate the best returns in terms of impact (in effect catching the empirical moment). The ESRC’s systems and processes struggle to accommodate such situations. Is there a way of making a sub-set of the ESRC’s funding more reactive and responsive to such opportunities? What is the evidence from the rapid turnaround provision to date?

Relatedly, RSA Members welcome the introduction of Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs) to respond to knowledge exchange opportunities in more flexible, responsive and creative ways than centrally administered schemes.

 

Question 3: What do you anticipate will be the major priorities requiring a response from social science over the next five to ten year period?

Priorities for social science Priority 1 Priority 2 Priority 3
Research Social and Geographical inequality

Cities and Regional Transformations

Environmental and Public Health 
Data infrastructure

Collection

Maintain longitudinal datasets

Access

Continue to support making use of datasets through the Secondary Data Analysis Initiative

Interrogation

Training and development to work with big data

Social Science capability

Multiple and emerging paradigms

Initial and early career training

Promote advanced quantitative methods

Integration of professional practice/expertise with academic research/methodologies

Mid-career re-skilling and augmenting existing expertise with opportunities to acquire methods skills in distinct or newly emerging fields 

Training/skills development to work in and lead cross-disciplinary teams
Non-academic partnerships and knowledge exchange

Bring academics and policy makers together

Engage more with the creative economy

Online/new media approaches

Identifying means of conveying the utility of research to users Identify potential partners and their needs
International

Joint funding with overseas grants (more)

Global regional inequalities

Vigorously support international collaborations through Open Research Area (ORA) and Horizon 2020

Global geopolitical change and development and its potential impacts

The dynamics of city-regions, cities and regions

Climate change governance

 

Question 4: How can we better enable interdisciplinary working in the social sciences, and between the social sciences and other areas of the science base?

Based on conversations with RSA Members, our experience of successful interdisciplinary work suggests that are there are two key influences: i) it is a contact sport: it requires the sustained interaction of researchers from different disciplines and this in turn needs to be facilitated and supported; ii) it takes time: the development of trust and understanding are vital so that mutual understanding can be developed and engagement is on a equal footing.

We would like to see more collaborative funding schemes that include funding for collaborative infrastructural activities (i.e. networks, seminar series, research grant funding). Given limited resources, the ESRC may wish to consider only favouring interdisciplinary approaches where there is a genuine prospect that it will add value; and ensuring that social scientists take the lead in collaborations rather than being an afterthought. We are keen to explore ways in which we can ensure cross-disciplinary research is social-science led when this is appropriate, and where possible that a comparative research perspective is present.

In terms of subject areas that lend themselves to cross and interdisciplinary working is engagement with economic matters. The UK is home to large numbers of economists and business and management researchers, but the attention being paid to economic issues such as poverty, transport, sustainability, and innovation open up the opportunities for cross-disciplinary research within and beyond the social sciences. This is also consistent with the policy context that is increasingly expecting to see research justify itself in economic and societal terms. Other areas of obvious potential include computational social science, and its engagement with ‘Big Data’ when relevant, and the proximate opportunities of bringing together the medical and social sciences.

It may be helpful to explicitly signal where schemes have a clear preference for collaborative projects.

 

Question 5: In which areas of activity, in particular, should ESRC promote innovative approaches?

Intractable social problems like social inequality, climate change and obesity, where the only way to make progress is to develop a concerted approach that is evidence based and commands strong cross-party political support. This ‘problem-focused’ approach might involve some variation in the existing schemes?  For example, the ESRC/SAMS mid-career fellowships have been effective in linking academic work with external organisations. As such the funding has allowed training, capacity building and engagement to take place. They are a very effective and efficient use of resources (though the flat rate is reported to be difficult to manage). It is particularly helpful that the institution can determine the project to reinforce the research programmes developing locally.

There are further opportunities to be found through exploration of ways in which the particular needs of users might best be incorporated in project design when these users do not, on the face of it, suit the categories and methodologies ordinarily expected by ESRC.

Research methods (including low-tech), building research capacity across the academic and public domains, enhancing UK education policy and practice, promoting social mobility are also all further areas that the ESRC could promote innovative approaches.

 

Question 6: What value does ESRC’s role in funding major infrastructure investment have for you or your organisation? How might this value be maximised?

Our answer to this question is based on perspectives from our Members and not from the ‘organisation’ understood as the RSA.

ESRC investment in research infrastructure seeks to make the UK the best place in the world to do research.  There is a need to make major infrastructure investments more visible, based on broad research communities rather than individual host institutions. Getting the right balance between the costs of maintaining the infrastructure and making funds available to exploit it is always tricky issue, which we accept.

 

Question 7: What roles should ESRC play in the development of social science capability and skills? [Please also provide input on the priority areas for developing social science capability under Q3]

An important area for the future will be equipping ECRs with the knowledge and skills to work in interdisciplinary teams.

As well as ECR’s the ESRC should consider providing funding/training opportunities for mid to late career researchers to acquire and develop the skills and techniques necessary to fully benefit from the investment in social science infrastructure and, in so doing, enhance researchers’ capacity to integrate quantitative and qualitative analysis within their research methodology.

UK Members report that there would be benefit from further clarity between ESRC’s role and that of the HEIs. Improved early career support (i.e. focus on mentorships and placements) would be helpful. Developing  more mechanisms to link early career researchers to investments such as large centres would be useful.  The development of mid-career researchers is often neglected both by HEIs and ESRC. A clearer career development structure more generally would be useful.

Despite all of the ESRC’s best efforts to promote quantitative skills development some colleagues are still concerned that we are not keeping up with new developments. Structural equation modelling, multilevel modelling and latent growth curve modelling should be taught to all social scientist PhDs who are doing quantitative research. Training for non-academics to understand better quantitative information and reporting may also be something that ESRC wish to consider.

 

Question 8: How might our strategic relationships with universities and other research organisations be developed further?

Strategic partner relationships with key social science universities would be welcome resulting in a better understanding of how Universities work and are governed. Each University/research organisation should have an Officer especially affiliated with, and trained by, the ESRC to act as a direct liaison between that institution and the ESRC. We welcome this approach with the Impact Accelerator Account (IAA).

Given the increasing accent upon impact and knowledge co-production, it may be worth thinking about more tripartite arrangements between universities, ESRC and potential research users. Importantly, these should not be restricted to national organisations who use research. Substantial impact happens through interactions with local users.

The ESRC may conclude that it should work more closely with a small number of institutions on understanding how some of the research priorities are to be delivered and, for example, what makes for successful cross-disciplinary research. We might learn a considerable amount by researching some of our own researchers.

 

Question 9: How can we further strengthen our relationships with our partners beyond academia, particularly in the business area?

This is a challenge as businesses are generally far more mercenary when it comes to time and cost-benefit than academia. In terms of general principles, it is good at the outset to set clear goals for each engagement, researching what the benefits of potential engagement are to both parties, then looking at what it is you are selling and how it can be marketed in a way that is useful to non-academic organisations. It is also important to identify particular areas of interest to target at specific times. For example, there is potential around big data and its link to business that are worth exploring. There is also potential in more applied areas such the future of economic development, given the shifting nature of policy interventions from ‘the regional’ to the ‘the local’.

Integrate the ESRC Officer (proposed in 8) within each institution’s Innovation, Engagement and Enterprise structure, ensuring that policy and strategy in this area is informed of and by ESRC objectives and challenges.

Value impact per se as an esteemed end product of research, regardless of whether it is preceded by traditional, published output.

 

Question 10: How should we engage stakeholders in identifying longer-term research, infrastructure and capacity priorities?

As a first step it is important to clarify what is meant by ‘stakeholders’ as different audiences are best targeted in different ways. For example; for policy colleagues targeted thematic events may be a good way of eliciting information. For the general public, regional focus groups are an effective method of engagement.

Ensure that stakeholders from as many sectors as possible are afforded an opportunity to participate in horizon scanning and sand pit activities. A frustration of working with many public sector stakeholders in particular, is that for understandable reasons, their time horizons are relatively short. They are not especially well placed to think strategically about the long term. Accordingly helping them to engage in such work could be beneficial.

 

Question 11: Are there challenges introduced by the co-production of knowledge and partnership working that we should take notice of?

An initial hurdle in the co-production of knowledge is the difference of opinion amongst academics and stakeholders as to the meaning of co-production and how it can be developed and implemented. The majority of successful co-production is based on the development of longer term effective personal relationships between academics and stakeholders. Short-term funding can make such relationships difficult to maintain and this can lead to a reluctance from ‘popular’ stakeholders to engage in co-production in the future.

Response on behalf of the Regional Studies Association.