Stop chattering amongst yourselves, researchers told

3rd December 2010 at 00:00
Their influence on policy pales by comparison with the sway of the private sector, conference hears

Educational researchers tend to talk mostly among themselves and fail to influence policy, it was claimed at their annual meeting in Scotland last week.

The private sector has far more sway over the thinking of those in power, argued Becky Francis, education director at the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), with researchers not nearly as good at getting their ideas into the open.

But others at the Scottish Educational Research Association's annual conference warned that researchers needed to keep their distance from policy-makers.

Ms Francis, visiting professor at King's College, London, observed in a keynote lecture entitled "Increasing Impact", that bodies such as philanthropic organisations (backed by multinational corporations), think tanks and the voluntary sector were experts at getting their ideas heard.

Their agendas were clear to see in a skim through political parties' manifestos, but the same could not be said of educational research.

"Sometimes it feels, as academics, that we are talking to ourselves," she said. "How much are we influencing politics and journalists? The answer is `rather little'."

Walter Humes, visiting professor at Stirling University, conceded that too many researchers were "naive" and needed a better understanding of the policy process. But he told delegates they should be wary of ceding control of their work.

"In a healthy democracy, there has to be a certain tension between different agencies," he said. "If they're signed up to the same agenda, then that's fundamentally undemocratic."

Policy-makers wanted research that offered unqualified, easy-to- understand, good news, Professor Humes suggested. This was at odds with the inherently open-ended and complex nature of research.

A "corporate culture" in universities was one of several factors threatening academic freedom. There were questions over who had control over certain pieces of research and whether findings could be trusted if researchers were not working independently of outside interests.

Some former academics had become "academic bureaucrats", or even "professional liars", Professor Humes claimed.

Graham Donaldson, former senior chief inspector of education, identified a divide between educational researchers and the classroom.

"The teaching profession is unsure about its own theoretical underpinning," he said. It had a "genuinely academic base", yet much work had to be done to "demystify research" among classroom practitioners.

There was a "lot of snake oil that masquerades as research", added Mr Donaldson, whose much-anticipated review of initial teacher education is due to be published early next year.

Pamela Munn, emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, highlighted the dangers of making exaggerated claims for a piece of research.

All researchers wanted their work to have an impact, she said, but that became dangerous where findings were based on "duff research", such as the discredited study on the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine by Andrew Wakefield, which persuaded many parents not to vaccinate their children.

She advised educational researchers to be wary of making generalised claims on the basis of small-scale studies.

Like Professor Humes, she had concerns about the prospect of policy and research getting too close to each other, having questioned how much influence researchers could expect to have over those in power politically.

"No matter how good the evidence, if it doesn't meet the prevailing ideology, it's not going to have an impact," Professor Munn said.

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