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Is the 'impact agenda' stifling methodological innovation?

Changes to the ways universities are financed and evaluated are impacting academic research practices and inhibiting innovative research into forced labour.

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Readers of openDemocracy might be aware of the recent debates and critiques taking place about the rise of the ‘McUniversity’. Changes to the way universities are being financed in Australia, Europe, the UK, the US, and other parts of the globe have led to the increased neo-liberalisation of education and the onset of the ‘entrepreneurial university’. This has resulted in a pronounced shift away from public knowledge systems to corporate organisations and a capitalist knowledge regime.

Scholars face increased pressures to secure external revenue streams and to ‘market’ their success—measured in terms of influence and outputs—in this new economy of knowledge. Critics of the shift have, to date, generally focused on how this drive for demonstrable impact has affected the day-to-day activities of scholars. For example, academics in the natural sciences no longer feel they can freely share their findings. Social scientists have lamented the loss of faculty power and autonomy due to increased supervision from academic managers. There have also been reports that academics are spending less time on teaching in order to pursue new sources of revenue. Overall, academics arguably now resemble investors, departments have been likened to football teams, and universities are frequently seen as machines to mass produce headline grabbing research, with ‘impact’ trumping quality and scholarly integrity. Corporatisation, careerism, credentialism, and managerialism are the new norms of higher education.

Apart from submitting academics to disciplinary management styles and high levels of commercial pressure, this new environment and economy of knowledge is affecting academic practice in ways that have potentially damaging implications for the ‘real world’. The pressure on scholars to secure external funding, amass prestige, and demonstrate influence in order to help fund their universities has resulted in academics compromising their values, altering the directions of their research, opting to pursue ‘safer’ research strategies, and allowing themselves to be co-opted into governmental/corporate research agendas. What has been termed ‘the impact agenda’ is shaping the trajectory of research and constraining the types of knowledge scholars are producing. Although this takes a number of forms, I’ll focus on three here.

My kingdom for a high impact factor

First of all, the pressure for research to have a measurable and demonstrable ‘impact’ on ‘changing the world’ is driving academics to produce research that gains them access to the corridors of power. In theory, universities should distance themselves from governmental and corporate interests in order to uphold one of the core aims and values of higher education: to be impartial enough to ‘speak truth to power’ where needed. This critical distance is arguably closing, and scholars have begun to change their research designs and trajectories in order to appeal to the needs/wishes of external bodies in order to secure funding.

There is reason to be concerned about the implications of this for scholars of forced labour. Will closer relationships with governments and corporations—who set the political economic contexts in which forced labour thrives—change how researchers approach and study this issue? There is already evidence that scholars are shying away from critical study and focusing on producing ‘statistics’ and other forms of knowledge that do not challenge prevailing power structures. Policymakers demand numbers and many academics are volunteering to supply them, preferring the path of least resistance to insisting on space for qualitative research in the form of interviews or ethnography. This only results in the reproduction of the problems identified in this ‘Research and Representations’ series, including the perpetuation of inaccurate and sensationalised figures that distort and obscure the complex reality.

Publish or perish

Second, the pressure to publish only in certain journals—many of which have methodological biases towards ‘scientific’ (quantitative) methods—gives academics plenty of incentive to adopt those same methodologies. Scholars have arguably become overly cautious, even conformist, in order to meet the perceived demands of editors and reviewers. This is a trend that could be very detrimental to research into forced labour. In my recent book I argued that theoretical development in the discipline of International Relations is at risk of being stifled, and that we are in danger of narrowing the possibilities for generating innovative theoretical research, because so much has become attached to where one publishes. This argument can be extended to the methodological realm. To increase one’s chances of being published, scholars are likely to adopt ‘safer’ publication strategies and shy away from pursuing methodological innovation which is deemed as ‘risky’. Safer publication strategies can include working within recognised methodological frameworks, especially those preferred by the designated ‘mainstream’. What this means for academics researching forced labour is that institutional pressures could condition such scholars to abandon methodological innovation, which is sorely needed.

Money, money makes the world go around

There is also the very strong risk that scholars will abandon work that challenges mainstream assumptions about forced labour for fear of angering funders, thereby perpetuating certain problematic and harmful claims that have been subject to numerous critiques. The need to secure research funding through highly competitive research grants has put academics at the mercy of the moneymen. Funders can reject findings and refuse to publish reports if they deem them ‘unsatisfactory’, meaning they are out of kilter with organisational messages and aims. This can jeopardise the reputations and careers of even established scholars, let alone junior academics. The structural pressures are reinforcing, and scholars are once again encouraged to pursue methods that are likely to yield findings in line with funder’s expectations. With regard to forced labour, this once again reinforces the clear preference for quantitative research that produces numeric ‘facts’.

And once the genie is out of the bottle…

Methodological co-option isn’t the only concern facing researchers who study forced labour. Another downside of pursuing research that is likely to have an external impact is that academics cannot control how their research is used once it enters the public realm. If scholars are being encouraged to ‘produce numbers’, such figures can be taken out of context and used to uphold arguments that were the initial target of critique. As Stephen Walt of Harvard University has warned, “powerful interests are all-too-willing to use the prestige associated with academic scholars to advance particular policy goals”.

So, where does this leave us? Do the difficulties and dangers presented mean that scholars should abandon attempts to have (internal and external) impact and influence? Certain commentators would argue yes. Yet despite the problems laid out above, scholars do have a responsibility to share their knowledge and make it available both within and outside of their academic communities. It is important that academics disseminate their findings in order to encourage scholarly and public debate, ‘speak truth to power’, question the status quo, and set the agenda by providing a voice for the unrepresented and powerless. But this does not mean that scholars have to alter their research design and methodological choices to do so. To escape the negative practices, academics need to remember that scholars have a central role in discussing, shaping, and even resisting changes to higher education. It is important not to lose sight of this, because there is much at stake.

About the author

Helen Louise Turton is Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies at the University Sheffield. She is the author of International Relations and American Dominance, and her research focuses on how knowledge is produced, disciplined and practiced within the field of international relations.

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