Everyday stories of impact: interpreting knowledge exchange in the contemporary university

Dr Peter MatthewsSenior Lecturer, University of Stirling

This blog post is based on a talk at the SKAPE seminar on 8 November 2017

Questions bout sexual and gender identity are in the news at the moment. The NHS in England has announced that patients will be routinely asked their sexual identity so services can be better tailored. The Office of National Statistics has caused a storm of controversy over proposals to change the way the census asks about gender and sex in 2021 to make it more trans-inclusive.

This might seem an odd gambit to open a blog post about a seminar on knowledge exchange, but it is appropriate because this directly links to knowledge I, as a researcher, want to transfer into policy and practice in Scotland. Basically, I want housing and homelessness organisations to routinely collect data on the sexual and gender identity of service user and tenants.

In the research project I discussed at SKAPE in November (published Open Access in Evidence and Policy) we found that researchers have many motivations for wanting to impact policy, and also varying backgrounds, experience and knowledge to do so. This, surprisingly, is not something considered in detail in the literature to-date. In particular, three key themes stood out in the data that acted as barriers, or enabled researchers, to effectively translate research findings into policy-making: their biographies; their disciplinary background and institutional pressures.

How do these three categories apply to myself and my desire to get the findings of my own research into policy? Considering my biography, I am a gay man myself, and I have always been committed to progressing issues of social justice in my research, inspired by my family background and the work of my doctoral supervisors on urban regeneration.

This then links to my disciplinary background – I am an applied policy researcher and have been in an academic environment where doing activities to influence public policy is valued since my first academic job. This compares to other disciplines – in our research the arts and humanities – where such activities may not be common and so there is no shared understanding of how to do them. It also contrasts with the experiences of some participants in our research who had their activities in trying to influence policy-making or service delivery actively dismissed by their institutions as inappropriate activities for an academic to be doing.

Finally, institutional pressures have affected my decision-making. As impact is valued in the REF, in fact it is to be valued even more, it is work I will be positively assessed for. Further, I am fortunate enough to have a period of research sabbatical at the moment, which means the work of organising meetings, writing policy-briefings, and contacting organisations can be fitted into a hectic schedule without the pressures of teaching or administrative duties.

For many academics these reflections might seem banal – it’s just the sort of everyday things you notice when you’re working with colleagues, or in reflecting on your experiences. However, coproducing our research with a civil servant involved in policy-making, meant that it was these factors that were highlighted as being key to understanding why some academic research, and researchers, found their routes into affecting policy-making much easier than others.

In our work following the research, a key focus has been on helping academics better reflect on their own behaviour – to see themselves as a policy-maker might see them. So how has such reflection helped me in my own attempts to influence the delivery of housing and homelessness services?

Primarily, I have strategically hidden the theoretical logic that has led me to my policy recommendation and that supports my argument. In analysing the data from my research organisations were reticent to ask service users their sexual or gender identity for fear of causing offence. This view, expressed by heterosexuals, presumes that being LGBT+ is something that people should be ashamed of, and people should be expected to volunteer when it is relevant, rather than something an organisation should seek to know about their service users. I interpret this as implicitly homophobic. This insight comes from queer theory and its insights into how heteronormativity is replicated by the everyday behaviours of heterosexuals. Thinking of how I might be viewed making such an argument, I am actively downplaying this theoretical argument in my engagement with policy-makers so I don’t come across as an activist scholar who uses long words and jargon, such as “heteronormativity”.

Rather, I am reframing the argument as one that should matter in delivering services. I use my data to highlight that many LGBT+ have negative experiences – such as harassment and violence – that should be tackled by service providers. Therefore, service providers should be routinely asking people their sexual and gender identity so they identify problems, and also that service users will be more comfortable in volunteering such information in future.

Whether academic research should seek to change policy-making, or should be measured for doing so, remain as key debates across most academic disciplines. However, our research suggests that if academics want to do this, then honest reflection on their own behaviour will make the sort of communication and ongoing relationships that can mean that academic research can make policy better.