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Trespassers should be encouraged

Welcome carpet with red sneakers on it.

Building a dynamic research culture means supporting mobility in all its forms, says Matthew Flinders

In December, Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, set out a vision for a research ecosystem in which inclusivity, creativity and collegiality replace individualism and competition, and UKRI’s role becomes stewardship rather than top-down management. 

Delivering the annual public policy lecture at the University of Cambridge’s Bennett institute, Leyser also warned that the professionalisation of research had severed, or at least frayed, the relationship between science and society. 

Realising Leyser’s vision will not be easy, but the Wellcome Trust’s recent findings about the existence of a toxic research culture suggest that doing nothing is not an option. 

Mobility matters

Watching Leyser’s talk, I was reminded of Essays in Trespassing, a 1981 book by the distinguished economist Albert Hirschman. Hirschman was an interdisciplinary and engaged researcher par excellence, with a compulsion to trespass from one field to another and to get involved in conversations far beyond the lab or lecture theatre. 

If research and innovation are to meet the challenge and opportunity set out by Leyser, more trespassing is needed. 

The 2014 Nurse report, which led to the creation of UKRI, argued that the most dynamic research happened when people, ideas, knowledge and talent moved across institutional, organisational and professional boundaries. 

Mobility challenges received wisdom and established facts, forges fresh connections, nurtures talent and mitigates against siloed thinking. It also blends the creation of knowledge with its use—something highlighted by Leyser’s emphasis on co-design and co-production of research. 

This approach is inherently collaborative. Leyser’s lecture placed a refreshing emphasis on team science, so much so that I found myself picturing a sign reading ‘Heroic lone scholars need not apply’ on her office door. 

The spread of discipline-based evaluation processes, narrow incentive structures and precarious employment models has meant that hyper-specialists have thrived while those who range across territories and fields have been driven nearly to extinction. Closing the gap between science and society means facilitating disciplinary mobility; those who range need to be actively helped and rewarded. 

This demands an approach to research infrastructure focused on boundary-spanning platforms that aid mobility between different research environments. The Institute for Government’s 2018 and 2019 reports on how government and academia can work together stressed the need to create “docking points” between the two.

Docking points

Happily, the UK already has excellent examples to build on. One significant source of docking points is the Universities Policy Engagement Network, which I chair. The network, which includes more than 70 universities across the UK, works with research users to forge links, share knowledge, promote understanding and facilitate mobility between research, policy and practice. It also represents a growing body of research support staff who specialise in facilitating knowledge exchange and are a critical but often overlooked part of the research team. 

A different but no less strategic form of research infrastructure is the Institute for Community Studies. This is an offshoot of the Young Foundation, a think tank committed to engaged community research and evidence-based social action, named after Michael Young, inaugural chair of the Social Science Research Council.

With its emphasis on research with communities rather than on them, the ICS is spearheading ways of co-producing and co-designing knowledge and developing genuinely embedded forms of citizen science, involving clusters of locally trained peer researchers. 

A third example is the Crucible. Developed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and replicated in Wales and by a number of universities, this allows researchers in all disciplines to place their knowledge in a wider context and to meet researchers and research users they would never have encountered in their day jobs. It has become a low-cost, high-gain tool for nurturing ‘structured serendipity’. 

As Leyser considers how UKRI should move towards her vision of a more inclusive and dynamic research endeavour, and the government continues the conversation that began with last year’s publication of its R&D Roadmap, it is vital to recognise the value of boundary-spanning platforms and the intellectual and societal benefits of promoting the art of trespassing. This, in itself, provides a mini-roadmap towards closing the gap.  

Matthew Flinders is director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield, vice-president of the Political Studies Association of the UK and chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight