Appliance of social science

Joined-up thinking across theory and practice could revolutionise our public services, says Jonathan Shepherd

While it is doubtless correct to assert that blue-skies research has a long history of “impact”, the search for 2014 research excellence framework case studies should also shine a spotlight on universities’ applied research - and whether it is as useful as it should be.

When it comes to involvement with the private sector, we are all working hard to make the most of technological advances, knowledge transfer opportunities and spin-off companies. But what about the public sector?

Of particular relevance here is applied social science. There is certainly progress to be made. Given the massive practical impact of the research carried out by practitioners in medicine, agriculture and engineering, it is a tragedy that in fields such as education and nursing, appointment to an academic post almost always brings practitioners’ careers to a permanent halt. An academic colleague in nursing, for instance, once told me that to return to ward work, she would have to retrain. This reduces academics largely to the role of (often hostile) commentators, isolated on campuses and far less effective and credible within their professions.

Things are beginning to change. The Universities’ Police Science Institute at Cardiff University, for example, shows how rapidly far-reaching and cost-beneficial reforms can be generated when the chasm between public services and social science is bridged. Within one REF cycle, the institute has helped to transform community policing by focusing on priorities identified by the public, developed a new, cost-effective intelligence-gathering method and paved the way to tackling fear of crime by mapping where that fear is most prevalent.

This example provides a model for how a university can provide the research foundations for almost any public service - by providing a continuum of knowledge production and transfer across theory and practice.

Indeed, this idea is catching on. Last summer, the government announced that it is to fund a series of “university training schools” that will link teacher training and teaching practice. In the same way as teaching hospitals, they will also develop research partnerships and new funding sources as, for instance, companies involved in learning technology are drawn in.

This approach also fits well with the needs of the professions at the heart of public service delivery. But higher education continues to organise itself as if impact on public services and the professions were not a real concern, with research priorities still largely driven by tradition and the advocacy of practitioner groups rather than on the basis of any strategic overview of what is most necessary.

Filling gaps in evidence production and transfer across services should be core responsibilities for our universities, and there is nothing second-rate about the rigorous research required. The reluctance of many social scientists to carry out essential real-world experiments often seems to reflect an inability to design and manage field trials, illusory concerns about supposedly insurmountable ethical barriers or misguided scepticism about the objective value of the experimental methods pioneered in agriculture and medicine.

Nor are universities the only bodies that need reform in this regard: the research councils must also take a look at themselves. While the Medical Research Council works closely with NHS research and development, the Economic and Social Research Council places little emphasis on field trials and the needs of public services and practitioners. Notwithstanding its co-development with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the impetus for reform is limited owing to the lack of practitioner-scientists and evidence generation in, for instance, teaching or policing and probation work.

If the impact agenda were to prompt the academic sector to address these failings head-on, the transformation in public service standards through the production and application of new knowledge would be enormous and world-leading.

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