Now I am become REF…

Published: April 30, 2015

“How university communicators can influence the impact of controversial research”

As anyone that knows me is aware, I’m a massive fan of American comics. One of my current favourites is ‘The Manhattan Projects’ by writer Jonathon Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra. It’s an outlandish science fiction take on real world history, with a plot that sees the creators of the atomic bomb secretly cooking up a host of altogether more bizarre ideas. So we see scientific giants like Oppenhiemer, Fermi, Feynmen and Einstein make contact with alien races, crack teleportation and, most excitingly, create artificial intelligence out of FDR’s dismembered head.

All good fun. Surprisingly though, not one of the 25 issues that have so far been published have featured the fictional Profs putting aside time to draft Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact case studies. It’s a shame, as the impact of their work is plain to see and their institutions would no doubt be on the receiving end of substantial levels of quality related funding. However, as was the case with the bomb created by the real life counterparts of these fictional scientists, it may well be that ethical questions take precedence over all other considerations.

Ethical questions about the impact – both intended and unintended – of research are inherent to many academic disciplines, but have a particular resonance with life sciences. For instance, in the past week there’s been media coverage about human embryo genetic engineering being carried out at China’s Sun Yat-sen University. Closer to home, methods developed by researchers at Newcastle University that open the door for babies with three genetic parents recently prompted a high profile Parliamentary debate.

This type of research raises incredibly complex questions to which there are no easy answers. As scientific discovery moves from the controlled environment of the laboratory to the chaotic outside world, it is met with a contrasting array of opinion. In extreme cases, negative judgements about the legitimacy of research and its consequences can cast a shadow over entire institutions. Allowed to run unchecked, this can have a real impact on the ability of institutions to do important – but controversial – work in the future. There is unlikely to ever be universal support for the precise nature and impact of much scientific research, but steps can be taken to ensure institutions retain the trusted reputations that give them legitimate voices in difficult debates.

This poses a challenge for university communications departments. Most of the time their work with researchers is spent trying to achieve impact rather than manage it. We know from our own experience in the sector that the main driver for research communications is to proactively bring work to wider public attention. Influencing reactions to work that automatically commands attention is a very different challenge.

There are a few principles I think are worth keeping in mind. First, the need to maintain ongoing internal awareness and understanding about potentially controversial research. This is often harder than it sounds. Universities are vast communities made up of academics who value their independence. There is rarely a comprehensive central planning grid that tracks every piece of research being conducted across an institution. Comms officers need to regularly search out contentious research and build relationships of trust with the academics involved. Furthermore, they should familiarise themselves with the debates about the issues that are raised by the work. This level of early awareness and contextual understanding will help them avoid being caught on the fly when research enters the public domain.

Second, HE comms professionals need to apply their familiarity with the issues to construct a sensitive narrative within which to present difficult work. In practical terms, this means putting together press releases, media briefings, Q&As and other material that acknowledge and (as much as is possible and appropriate) addresses differing perspectives. Demonstrably appreciating the different sides of public debate will help build trust that research is not being conducted without considering ethical dimensions.

Finally, comms officers can help build relationships with key stakeholders who have a voice in relevant debates. Brokering ongoing dialogues with credible figures who are representative of all shades of opinion will avoid institutions appearing isolated as debates play out in public. Again, universal agreement with the research agenda is unlikely, but proving that concerns are understood and appreciated can go a long way to securing a more nuanced and constructive debate.

The destructive impact achieved by founding fathers of the atomic age is beyond any reasonable doubt, but there continues to be debate about the legitimacy of their intentions. This is a situation that will resonate with many of today’s scientists. The directions in which their discoveries take society will not always be clear, but we can’t afford for this to challenge the licence academics have to do such blue skies work. Managing the way in which difficult work is presented is as much of a challenge for HE communicators as the need to proactively achieve impact. Taking steps to build familiarity with difficult issues, acknowledge all shades of legitimate opinion and broker constructive dialogues can help institutions retain trusted reputations.

Mark Fuller
Associate Director
Image credit: Nick Pitarra

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