Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Counting the angels on the head of a pin

As a communicator rather than an academic I have, at times, found some of the debates going on around me mystifying and, to be honest, a bit pretentious.  "What is knowledge?" seems to be a favourite one and "when does information become knowledge?" is another.  I sometimes think I'm listening to arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But, over the past five years, as I have been engaged in the reality of disseminating results from the research, the issues become more concrete.  Researchers are usually striving to answer important questions that would help real people in the real world.  Often they might be producing lots of data or information, but it isn't necessarily emerging in a form that is going to be useable by potential audiences.  The Relu programme was designed to address this gap by engaging potential knowledge users from the very outset, and I think that we have achieved a great deal.  But we still aren't perfect by any means.  Projects have gone to great lengths to ensure knowledge exchange takes place, with advisory panels and events that facilitate the process, at programme level we have targeted users very strategically and our publications aim to provide information in the right form.  As a result, I think we do better than many research programmes have managed in the past.  But, although the gap between knowledge production and application is growing smaller, it's often still there.  Representatives ask those "simple" questions, and researchers look surprised, because they have produced the results and published them in an academic journal, and that, surely, is all they are being paid to do?  They have a point; too often there's no money in the budget for doing anything else.  And how much effort and resources are policy makers and organisations putting into drawing out the information they say they need?   It's very variable. Whatever your point of view on these questions, it isn't going to solve the problem, particularly in these straitened times.  The reality is, however, that research which goes nowhere beyond the academic journal isn't benefiting anyone, except possibly the researcher and his/her career.  Even that may cease to be the case as we all strive to measure that elusive "impact" for Research Excellence Framework, or REF.  So perhaps we do need to put a bit more thought into the philosophical question "what is knowledge"? and how all that data is going to be turned into useful information when designing research proposals. 

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