Head of Research Development, Royal College of Art and Co-Champion of the Arts & Humanities Special Interest Group for ARMA
I have been thinking about the best way to support practice-based and practice-led research since 2011 when I joined the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Creative and Performing Arts team. Since then, I have had the opportunity to work with practice researchers as well as a wide range of people who provide research support for practice research and researchers.
At the AHRC, my focus was providing support for arts and humanities research, including practice research, in the form of awarding publicly-funded research funding. I had the opportunity to speak to practice researchers about their work, to read funding proposals, and to gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of proposals from reviewers and panel members who carried out the peer review and assessment of the proposals (some of whom, of course, were practice researchers themselves). This was an incredibly valuable experience, but of course there was a key group of people with whom I had not had the opportunity to engage – the research administrators and managers supporting practice researchers.
I joined the Royal College of Art as the Head of Research Development in 2015, and where I had once been responsible for supporting arts and humanities research through funding, I now provide support for a much larger proportion of the research lifecycle. My team and I support RCA researchers, which includes a large concentration of practice researchers, to identify research ideas and questions and possible funders and to develop funding proposals. We provide combinations of direct support, advice and guidance, internal funding, and everything in between to researchers to enable them to manage their projects, dissemination, impact and reporting.
And then, at the other end of the research lifecycle, my team and I provide support to RCA researchers as they prepare for REF2021. At the RCA, we submit to a single REF Unit of Assessment, 32 Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory, and unsurprisingly, practice is a key component of many of our disciplines and emerges in many forms. Through training courses, interactive workshops and surgeries, one-to-one meetings, and a variety of activities in the Schools, researchers have opportunities for training, support and guidance on preparing their outputs and accompanying 300 word descriptors and portfolios. The Research Office supports staff to ensure their outputs, in whatever form they take, are deposited into the RCA Research Repository. I and many of my senior colleagues also advocate for practice research in the sector as well as more broadly in a variety of ways – from making it central to our responses to REF and policy consultations, to raising awareness in external meetings of practice research in the REF, and beyond.
One of the challenges in supporting REF preparation, regardless of the discipline or university, can be ensuring that the support and training we provide does not just fuel REF preparation but good research practice more broadly. Writing 300 word descriptors to explain the significance, originality and rigour of research to the REF sub-panel members is important, but the skills used to craft the 300 word descriptor should become business-as-usual beyond the REF to articulate research and practice to an external audience. Likewise, the time, skill, effort and consideration that goes into constructing a REF portfolio is not something that is only useful for the REF; this is something that can and should help researchers and practitioners to explain and present their research to the world beyond REF.
The feedback from Panel D, and particularly UoAs 34 and 35, indicated that while practice research made up a substantial proportion of the outputs, institutions varied in their understanding and presentation of practice research (paragraph 61). Portfolios were not always structured accessibly or focussed coherently.
UoA 34: Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory reported that while a number of portfolios were strong and demonstrated the research and its significance, originality and rigour, there was a large proportion of portfolios which were unhelpful: ‘The two most typical shortcomings were: 1) the submission of evaluative commentary more concerned with the esteem, impact and status of the output than with research: i.e. a significant number of portfolios contained mainly review and publicity materials. 2) The submission of a high volume of disparate materials, without an index or clear organisational structure, so much so that the sub-panel was unable to easily discern what the relevance of the material was, or what its connection was to the research content of the output. In the worst cases, portfolios were as much an impediment as an aid to the understanding of the research content of the output.’ (UOA 34 overview report, paragraph 13)
UOA 35: Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts indicated that some practice research outputs provided ‘inadequate documentation of the research imperatives, process or outcomes’ (UOA 35 overview report, paragraph 44). The sub-panel also noted that ‘there are too many instances where the sector still has difficulty distinguishing excellent professional practice with a clear research dimension. HEIs can do more to assist excellent practitioners who move into the academy to make the transition into developing the research articulation of their work’ (paragraph 37).
The feedback from Panel D and UoAs 34 and 35 in REF2014 have raised some of the same issues that can arise across the research lifecycle for practice research. At the AHRC, I often saw peer reviews which made similar comments on practice research proposals, and the AHRC worked with a practice researcher on the Peer Review College to develop a presentation on some of the common issues in practice research proposals. In my previous and current roles, I have spoken to practice researchers who are keen to ‘develop the research articulation of their work’ (as above) but feel that they are being asked to force their practice and research to look like something else – something more traditional, something safer, something that doesn’t quite fit – in order to be competitive for research funding and to be assessed highly in the REF.
Articulating the research dimension of practice is a skill that is for (the entire research) life(cycle), not just for REF (to badly paraphrase the Dog’s Trust). There are people, like PRAG-UK, who are committed to supporting the sector by developing best practice and guidance. Research administrators, managers and other research support professionals have a part to play in this as area, as well. I am currently Co-Champion (with Eleanor Glenton, Research Development Manager, University of Durham) of the Arts & Humanities Special Interest Group in ARMA (the Association for Research Managers and Administrators), and supporting practice research is a major concern within the SIG. The Arts & Humanities SIG has formed a Working Group for Supporting Practice-Led and Practice-Based Research following the ARMA Annual Conference in 2017, where it became apparent that this is a major area of concern for research support professionals who work with arts and humanities researchers.
Lorna Wilson (Head of Research Development, Durham University) and Katie Holland (Research Funding Manager, Nottingham Trent University) issued a survey to the A&H SIG about practice research in autumn 2017. They found that about half of the respondents, supporting practice research only accounts for a small part of what they do but does require more support than ‘conventional’ research. The survey identified these key challenges for research support professionals who work with practice researchers:
- Defining Practice-Led and Practice-Based research – there is a wide variety of definitions of both terms, with some overlaps
- Understanding funders’ interpretations of practice research
- The practice researchers they support are often not used to applying for funding, and so confidence can be a challenge
- Framing and articulating practice as research can be a challenge, especially for those outside of academia
- REF and preparing and supporting ‘non-standard’ outputs (e.g. 300 word descriptors, portfolios)
- REF and framing impact for practice research
These are areas that the SIG and the Working Group are keen to explore with practice researchers, funders and other stakeholders so that we, as research support professionals, can ensure we are providing the best support possible for practice research for the entirety of the research lifecycle – from idea, to project, to dissemination, to REF submission.