Breaking the status quo and maximising research potential


Written by Director of N8 Research Partnership, Annette Bramley 

Research is in its essence, looking beyond the boundaries of what we know and yet, one of the things I see in research culture across universities, is the timidity to break the status quo. There is a stark divide, research to researcher of what boundary they are happy to cross. Boundaries between institutions, disciplines and place are to a greater or lesser extent defended consciously and unconsciously by large parts of research communities which must impact our research potential.

The harsh reality is that these self-made boundaries do not further research; rather they limit what can be achieved by diving the research body. Divide and rule is a classic socio-political strategy that breaks up power or strength into smaller, weaker units. In the context of research and innovation, dividing boundaries between institutions, disciplines and place mean that it is more difficult to address the complex and systemic challenges that face us today than it would be if those boundaries did not exist.

One response to this predicament is to collaborate, to form multidisciplinary teams of researchers with the breadth of expertise to tackle complex systemic challenges. This requires larger, more expensive teams. It often has to be incentivised with earmarked funding, because pushing at boundaries of discipline, language and cultural norms involves time, resilience and tolerating a certain amount of personal and professional risk.

What I have observed over many years that in response to investment in multidisciplinary research, proponents of “discovery” research worry that research within their disciplines will no longer be valued or funded. This is natural- after all for the last 150 years these disciplinary structures have conferred on researchers within them the advantages of common language, methods and cultural norms – particularly around what constitutes “excellent” research. All of these factors weigh in on our research potential across universities and our capability to break out of the norm.

Now that “place” has become more prominent on the research policy agenda, proponents of the “status quo” rely heavily on the argument that public funding for research in the UK is allocated on the basis of international excellence; that this is a critical feature of the UK system which drives up the quality of research; and supports the principle that the best science should be funded, wherever it is found.

This all sounds great- how could anyone possibly argue with funding on the principle of excellence? The problem is that we don’t really have an objective and well understood definition of excellence. There are implicit understandings or “cultural norms” within disciplines but when we start to push at the boundaries these understandings start to be challenged. And this opens up huge potential for unconscious bias towards those outside of our “in-groups”, those on the other side of our self-imposed boundaries of institution, discipline or place.

What if we thought of all research as discovery research? What if we stopped defending the boundaries that limit research and instead open ourselves up to the limitless opportunities that the full spectrum of research and innovation has to offer? What if we stopped evaluating research excellence on the basis of our own cultural norms? What if we could come up with an objective definition of excellence that could be understood across boundaries?

If we could do this we might then open ourselves up to the limitless opportunities the whole research spectrum has to offer and push at the boundaries that really matter – the forefront of knowledge and the complex challenges that face our world today. We could maximise our research potential and we really could have “whatever you want, whatever you need….” research potential