I am delighted to be able to work with Goldsmiths to kick-start this hugely important conversation on the future of practice research in the UK. Practice makes a hugely vibrant and important contribution to our research base. Through its broad and impressive strengths, it contributes not only to the vitality of scholarship across all disciplines, but also to the wider publics, communities, societies and economies that engage with and benefit from the work of our universities.
We are, however, living in a time where practice research is being subjected to very real pressures. I want to outline three such pressures in this blog post, and offer some suggestions – or perhaps provocations – for how practice research can rise to the challenge of meeting these pressures head on and using them to shape a vital new vision for practice research in the UK.
The first challenge is the biggest: the pressure to demonstrate value for money. Research in all disciplines is operating in a context where continued success depends on competing for scarce resources. Governments, funders, universities and researchers would all agree that public investment in research should always aim to strike a balance between two needs – the need for intellectual pursuits to take place freely and openly, and the need for public funding to be spent wisely. While I don’t believe the balance has shifted greatly in recent years, I do think the tone of the public conversation has shifted towards viewing the wisest investments as those which generate a financial return.
I believe it is entirely within the gift of research communities, their representatives, their universities, funders and others to make a significant contribution to changing the tone of the conversation. Why is it okay for public money to be spent on undertaking research in new, untested, creative directions that may have no immediate positive impact on the public purse? Why is research in creative disciplines worth paying for? As a great believer in practice-based research, I have developed my own answers to these questions. But as your provocateur, I’d say that the practice research community needs to take all available opportunities to make the arguments for continued investment, and that a key part of this is that practice research must define for itself what excellent, valuable, impactful scholarship looks like.
The second challenge is one that might feel more real to many researchers: the pressure to align practice-based research with institutional strategies. This, too, is about money, but it is also about much more – it is about the structures, cultures, strategies and managerial approaches within universities. How should university structures and cultures adapt, and make space, to allow practice research to flourish on its own terms? How can practice researchers engage more with wider institutional imperatives and demands? As your provocateur, I’d say that university managers and practice researchers need to talk seriously about what needs to change to enable practice research to thrive. This blogsite, and the associated discussion list, can provide forums for these conversations to begin to take real shape – let’s use them.
The third challenge is perhaps the one that perhaps feels closest to the heart of practice research: the pressure to identify and engage with a wider research ‘standard’ or ‘definition’ that comes from practising in a university context. Perhaps some researchers feel that the common accepted notions of ‘research’ should not, or do not, apply to them. Perhaps the language and terminology that research managers, funders and governments use in discussions and documents is unfamiliar, inapplicable, or simply unrecognisable. Perhaps the processes of documenting, communicating and translating new knowledge and insight are simply less important in practice research. Or perhaps engaging with these wider academic standards and demands is damaging to practice itself, and if ‘being a better researcher’ means ‘being a worse practitioner’, then it’s just not worth it.
As your provocateur, I’d say that the practice research community urgently needs to sort these issues out. Practice is undoubtedly worthwhile in its own right, creating value and impact through aesthetic appreciation or practical application in myriad ways. But I think it’s wholly justified to expect all practice researchers to make a lasting contribution to the body of insight into, and knowledge about, the structures, meanings and values of practice, and to communicate that contribution effectively. How best to do this? Well, it might take time to reach a settled answer, but your universities and funders are listening. Let’s get cracking!
Ben Johnson is a research policy adviser at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.