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Recovering and recentring research in an age of polycrisis


Guest blogger Alex Beresford, Director of Research and Innovation in the School of Politics and International Studies, shares practical steps for recentring research in times of crisis.

As global citizens we live in an age of “polycrisis” in which we are confronted with numerous simultaneous and intersecting crises, most notably concerning the global environment, costs of living, violence, and pandemic.

As researchers we are charged with the responsibility of helping to understand, mediate and, hopefully, resolve these crises through the advancement of knowledge and empowering our students through pedagogical innovation. This has never been more important and yet obstacles to achieving these aims loom large.

This blog outlines some of the most immediate challenges of this polycrisis resulting from the COVID19 pandemic, then shares some practical initiatives to rebuild and empower our research communities.

The impacts of COVID19 on research

The pandemic has had a sustained impact on research capacity, not least because of the need to rapidly convert to online learning while responding to increased demands for staff and student support. We faced the formidable challenges of supporting our colleagues and students at a time when many of us were barely able to cope in our home lives. These impacts were experienced unevenly in relation to gender, class, race, health, disability, contractual vulnerability, and caring responsibilities, entrenching existing inequalities in our community. They have also presented stark challenges to advancing research agendas by suspending projects and fieldwork and isolating us from our networks.

The prioritisation of teaching activity at the height of the pandemic was understandable. However, this necessary intervention should not solidify the belief that education and research are compartmentalised, substitutable tasks. Instead, we must see them as symbiotic, indissoluble elements of an integrated mission to help address global challenges through the co-production and sharing of scientific expertise and lived experience.

Recentring research within the University environment – at a systemic and individual level - is therefore vital to recapturing a sense of collective endeavour as we navigate polycrisis.

What can we do?

The multiple challenges we face as we emerge from pandemic require us to manage the expectations we can put on ourselves and our colleagues. Our efforts should include interventions of various scales to handle crisis as best we can.

Within the School of Politics and International Studies, we seek to recentre research through a variety of initiatives:

  • Introducing simple scoring criteria to sabbatical applications to recognise and privilege those whose research was impacted most by the pandemic.

New assessment criteria were developed by research leadership in the School and were deliberated extensively by the School Research and Innovation Committee. One challenge was making these criteria operationalisable without staff having to disclose highly personal stories. For example, we asked for binary yes/no answers to questions about whether an applicant had caring responsibilities and whether they faced other significant personal challenges that impacted negatively on their research during pandemic. For the former we relied on staff self-reporting while the latter could be verified discreetly with the HoS regarding whether staff had known difficulties (perhaps reported directly or through forums like annual academic meetings). We used a basic scoring system – awarding zero (for a “no” answer) or five (for “yes”). This approach was far from perfect, but it nonetheless afforded us some means of considering the disequalising impacts of pandemic while also delivering an important message to staff about our awareness of these challenges.

  •  Opening up a new seed corn funding scheme specifically to help people rebuild their research networks.

We extended the established school research investment fund to include a new scheme to focus on “network acceleration” to help those who had reported being estranged from their research networks during the pandemic. This scheme, awarding staff up to £2000 to bring their networks to Leeds, comes with no defined output expectations (e.g. grant bids) to allow colleagues the space to reconnect with their research agendas on their own terms without time-bound pressures for deliverables.

“The availability of this funding enabled me to rebuild my research network after the impact of COVID-19 and prompted me to reconsider my strategic role in the broader academic community and how I can contribute to the advancement of the discipline by fostering both internal and external networks.”

Margherita Belgioioso, Lecturer

  • Organising weekly writing retreats to protect time in our diaries.

To recentre research in our everyday practice and routine was essential, as was rebuilding a sense of collective identity and a supportive research culture. Simply booking space to do this helps to bring us back together and re-prioritise research activity. Attended by colleagues from across the School, the retreats are particularly popular among ECRs, women, and BAME colleagues.

“The writing sessions really foster a sense of community and provide mutual support during the writing process, which can sometimes feel quite isolating.”

Sophie Jung, Lecturer

  • Celebrating triumphs over adversity in research practice.

To take one example, we find that some PGR students feel stressed about what wasn’t possible for their research during COVID, and what this means for their thesis. Working with examiners, we are encouraging PGRs to openly discuss and document the challenges they encountered and to celebrate how they worked around these, situating their contributions to knowledge and research innovation unapologetically within the historical context.

  • Developing a new staff-facing website sharing resources to support publishing strategies, funding applications, open research, and ethics.

Staff often found it hard to source information about core processes and support, particularly after the time we all spent apart during pandemic. This resource is designed to help alleviate these problems.

Collaborate to support

These five example initiatives intentionally take a grassroots approach. Impactful in themselves, they also leave space for more ambitious projects aimed at overcoming entrenched inequalities, which require a cultural reordering in higher education.

We cannot advance collectively if our approaches to research support are kept secret, to be weaponised for competitive external auditing exercises across our disciplines. To this end we have established a culture of sharing practice across our discipline via the British International Studies Association (BISA) Directors of Research and Innovation Forum (mirroring the DoRI Forum within our own institution). Working with external colleagues, we share best practices in research support to fulfil an important but often neglected duty of care that we owe to our discipline beyond the walls of our own universities.

These are tentative steps. However, they illuminate the power of shared learning over competition in our efforts to recentre collaborative, inclusive, open and supportive research culture and practice in our communities.