Understanding academic culture

Next week I am going back to school. I will start a research project as an Associate Fellow1{#fnref1.footnoteRef} of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at the University of Cambridge. The aim of my research is to investigate how decisions of policy-makers that shape the research policy environment are translated into actual outcomes and responses within the academy; how policy and research culture interact. You can read a slightly more expansive summary of the project here[pdf].

Although not part of the scheme, I will be using the tried-and-tested methodology of the CSaP Policy Fellowships programme. Next week, and during a second visit in November, I will meet with a range of experts from within Cambridge and beyond. They will be drawn from a range of different disciplines, and will bring diverse perspectives on the research questions I am interested in. I am hoping they will navigate me into research literatures, and help me develop and refine the questions I am addressing. It promises to be an illuminating, exciting and exhausting few days.

The central question – what determines research culture – is an important one. Many of the debates around research policy centre on issues related to it. Do we have the right research culture? Is it changing for the worse? Do research policy interventions foster a positive research culture? The question forces us to examine the balance between academic freedom, and the imperative of the academy to be responsive to society’s needs. The current review by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is exploring many of these issues, and I am hopeful that my research will illuminate them further. The mechanisms by which policy interventions lead to changes in culture are important to understand, and I think we need to learn not just from how things work in academia, but also from other sectors.

As well as the research questions themselves, I am also keen to reflect on the process of investigation. Seeking insight to how the culture in academia works from experts who are operating within that culture themselves brings front and centre questions of the independence of experts. I am firmly of the view that whenever expertise is brought to bear on a policy question it is important to recognise that the experts will bring biases of one sort or another, some of them unconscious. When we are dealing with ‘policy for science’ (as opposed to ‘science for policy’) the need to keep this in mind becomes all the more apparent.

I will be blogging about this project as I go, writing about the experience, what I am learning, and interesting research sources that I come across. I am also keen to hear your views. What should I be exploring more? Are there research papers or reports that I ought to read? I have no idea where this research will take me, but I am sure it will be an interesting journey.

  • As I write the website has yet to be updated to include my name on the list…^</fn></footnotes>