Between autonomy and engagement: interpreting and practising knowledge exchange in UK academia
Bandola-Gill, Justyna Estera
Scholarly interest in “impact” - the focus on the social and economic relevance of science as a research assessment criterion - has been steadily rising in UK academia since the early 1990s. In this context, knowledge exchange between researchers and policymakers has become increasingly incentivised by funders and universities. Building on theories from STS, evidence-policy relations and organisation studies, this PhD thesis explores the cultural and institutional determinants of the changing relationship between science and policy over the last thirty years. The thesis employs the concept of institutional logics to examine the broader implications of these changes, arguing that the so-called “research impact agenda” has resulted in the emergence of new practices in UK academia. In this work I identify and define two main logics that both co-exist and compete: the logic of excellence, which views science as intellectually driven and underpinned by the freedom of inquiry of academics, and the newly emerged logic of impact, which is problem-driven and assumes high levels of engagement with research users for the purpose of solving policy relevant problems. The empirical foundations of this thesis rest on two case studies of publicly-funded knowledge exchange organisations: the ESRC Genomics Policy & Research Forum and Fuse – the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health. Based on 51 in-depth semi-structured interviews with academics and policymakers engaged with these two organisations, plus an analysis of over 80 documents (including research funding policy statements and case study organisations’ strategies and reports), this thesis offers insights into the academics’ responses to the dual logics shaping contemporary academia. This thesis argues that this paradigmatic pluralism poses a particularly acute challenge for academics engaged in knowledge exchange organisations who perceive themselves to be guided by contradictory expectations and incentive systems. In particular, three areas of contestation of these logics are foregrounded: i) academic knowledge practices including producing academic research, translating research and producing policy research; ii) various framings of knowledge exchange employed by academics, including viewing it as challenging policy frameworks, facilitating learning, producing usable evidence, or advocating for specific policy options; and iii) practices of boundary work between science and policy in terms of both blurring existing boundaries and setting new ones. Establishing hybridity between different logics within designated knowledge exchange spaces involves a rhetorical, material and structural process of navigating these multiple framings of knowledge exchange, research practices and boundary work. Through employing such diverse framings and practices, the interviewees aimed to secure legitimacy in the eyes of both policy audiences and fellow academics by variously positioning themselves as both relevant to the policymaking process and independent from it. This thesis argues that the authority of science in knowledge exchange processes and its effectiveness at contributing to policy change stem neither from the close engagement of academics with the political context nor from complete autonomy from such setting, but rather it is grounded in an ability to constantly negotiate the two. To understand this persistent institutional and cultural duality, this thesis proposes we should understand science and policy as symbiotically intertwined but nonetheless distinguishable from one another.