This week I attended an online seminar called Research Impact and Public Engagement for Career Success. Five panellists discussed the expectation that public engagement and research impact should be woven into the fabric of the research process from conception to dissemination and beyond.
I’m not too clear on how I feel about the requirement for an obvious, pre-specified impact in order to validate research. On initial consideration it seems sensible that some assessment of the impact of research should add to any assessment of the value of that research. In terms of the kind of research that I am interested in – What Works research – it is probably important to be able to say something like “The impact of this study is that we will be able to say with some confidence whether teachers’ use of Intervention X will be helpful for students’ achievement of Outcome Y”. Important? Yes. A prerequisite? I’m not sure.
What of the ‘blue skies’ research for which impact is not immediately identifiable? Some individuals talk without irony about teachers needing to prepare students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet (a meme that is rightly criticised in some quarters for its silliness – or at least for the unremarkableness of its premise). But, if we are encouraged to value aspects of a future world that may or may not come into existence then surely we can value research the impact of which we cannot yet conceptualise.
3M is well known for funding with money, time and moral support blue skies research; research for the sake of itself. I’m willing to bet that a great many of the projects 3M funds end up at the bottom of tortuous rabbit holes. However, 3M’s approach to research and development has resulted in some notable, yet unforeseeable, success stories.
In 1968, while trying to create a super-strong glue, Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, accidentally created a ‘low-tack’ reusable adhesive that he had no idea what to do with. So flummoxed was he by its apparent lack of a tangible ‘impact’ that when he touted it around the halls of 3M in the succeeding years he referred to it as his ‘solution without a problem’. It wasn’t until 1974 that a colleague of his, Art Fry, deciding that he needed a way to anchor a bookmark to his hymnal, appropriated the glue. He applied it to some yellow paper (the colour of the only paper that happened to be lying around the science lab at the time) and created Press ‘n’ Peel. Even then it wasn’t until 1980 (twelve years after the research that led to the creation of the adhesive) that, consumer tested and rebranded, Post-it notes hit the shelves of stationers across the world. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If an impact assessment had been required of Silver and Fry to green light their research who knows if these ubiquitous little yellow squares would have been allowed to have the impact that they so clearly have.
Of course, what triggered an understanding of the potential impact of Silver’s creation was a form of public engagement. By touting his invention around 3M, both through informal chats with colleagues and formal seminars with peers, his solution eventually found its problem.
Public engagement is where I find myself feeling on firmer ground. There is a lot of waste in research. Some of it is due to things like publication bias, data hoarding, and unnecessary duplication, but some of it is because researchers are not engaging with the public. As a result researchers waste time, effort and money by addressing questions that no one is interested in seeing the answers to.
Consider this example. If you had a chronic poorly knee, what kind of research would you like to see being conducted to help you? Well, in 2000 Deborah Tallon and colleagues engaged with the public to find out what people with osteoarthritis of the knee and their doctors wanted researchers to research. They found that the top two research priorities among these demographic groups were knee replacements and education on how to manage pain. When Tallon and her colleagues looked at what dominated the research literature on interventions for this condition they found that drug treatments and surgery came top; a clear mismatch between what consumers wanted and what researchers were doing.
Tallon suggested that this pattern was unlikely to be confined to just knee problems, an assertion that was borne out by work by Sally Crowe and colleagues earlier this year. In a similar exercise to Tallon’s, Crowe and colleagues found the same pattern of preference for drug trials among researchers, while patients, carers and clinicians prioritised research on non-drug interventions. Some might argue that, despite expectations for public engagement, the medical research community, on average, remains woefully disengaged.
In the world of education I see no reason to be any more optimistic that researchers adequately engage with the end users of their research. I am currently preparing a systematic review of language-teaching interventions for school aged children. This involves screening thousands of titles and abstracts to find studies that might be relevant to a question that is of demonstrable interest to emergent bilinguals, their parents and their teachers (I know they’re interested because I’ve asked some of them). This question is, in essence, what can be done in the classroom and the home to improve outcomes for English language learners. I have so far screened 3000 potentially relevant abstracts and only about five percent of them have anything to do with teaching and learning strategies. Many, many times that number are on things like fMRI to locate which parts of the brain light up when people say things in different languages, or correlational studies that report associations between the skills in different languages of bilingual learners. Interesting? Perhaps. Impactful? Depends on how you define impact. Based on what consumers want? I doubt it.
Public engagement is critical if we as researchers hope to add value to the educational experiences of the consumers of our research. In a climate of top-down imposition, researchers, teachers and pupils will find power in public engagement. That is why, following this week’s seminar, I shall be redoubling my efforts to engage with the pupils, teachers, and parents to set my research agenda, so that together we can produce something useful, relevant, and perhaps even impactful.