Written Evidence Submitted by Dr Hannah R. Marston, Dr Deborah J. Morgan, Dr Gemma Wilson-Menzfeld, & Mr Robbie S. Turner
Overview of Institutions
The Open University (Marston), Swansea University (Morgan), Northumbria University (Wilson-Menzfeld) are (snr) research fellows/lecturers at their respective institutions and are leading the way in creative, innovative, and interdisciplinary research in the areas of digital technology, video games, loneliness and isolation, psycho-social gerontology, age-friendly cities, and communities in conjunction with the use and impact of digital technology and practices by citizens in society. Turner is a partner and a senior consultant of Spektrum Consulting, he is well versed in telecommunications for the private sector, and supports apex customers in Defence, Humanitarian and Government markets.
Contributors (Marston, Morgan, Wilson-Menzfeld) of this evidence collaboratively work together on various projects, in conjunction with different stakeholders (e.g., Age Northern Ireland, Age Cymru, Age UK, Campaign to End Loneliness, War Widows’ Association, Digital Voice for Communities, Digital Communities - Wales), policy makers (e.g., Welsh Assembly Government, Policy Connect) and industry. Marston and Turner collaborate together on projects pertaining to a Not-for-Profit research framework associated to NATO. Currently, Turner is a co-author with Marston on a forthcoming book (in progress)
Marston, Morgan, and Wilson-Menzfeld, are leading authorities in their respective area(s) of research and disciplines and are the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers as well as the next generation of gerontologists/gerontechnologists at their respective institutions. Additional expertise lies within the international management consultancy agency – Spektrum, primarily focusing on technology and telecommunications equipment for both the private sector, Defence, Humanitarian and Government markets. All contributors work across both national and international landscapes, through their varied networks, membership organisations, project management consulting and leading inter/national research projects through their respective HEIs.
Why are we submitting this research:
The evidence presented here is representative of academics’ experiences in the Academy at their respective ranks in addition to the experience external collaborators who also play an integral role in the phases of research. We believe our voices are important and should be heard given that we are leading authorities in our respective disciplines and sub-fields, as well as academics who conduct a myriad of research which includes various actors to ascertain the goals and research questions of our respective research agendas.
Body of evidence:
The evidence presented forthwith will focus primarily on
a) individual researchers,
b) research institutions and groups, and
c) research funders, including public funding bodies,
We then present a series of recommendations for consideration in a bid to identify and ascertain alternative and suitable solutions.
It is complicated to answer the question relating to the reproducibility crisis and research integrity and is multi-faceted with several elements intersecting which in turn play critical roles in this crisis.
As academics we are expected to write and submit research grants to various calls and funders including UKRI, charities (£-££££) which may/not include an international component. Many academics at the ranks of Snr/Research Fellow, and lecturer have built up respective profiles through a myriad of pathways including social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, LinkedIn, Research Gate etc.), accepting and undertaking employment overseas (e.g., Research Scientist/Post-doctoral fellow, Lecturer etc.), being a member of the TEDx series, and generally forming positive and collegiate collaborations with colleagues and peers via networks and memberships through learned societies.
However, the current precarity of the Academy which includes the casualisation of lower ranks (e.g., Snr/Research Fellows/Assistants/Associates, Lecturers, etc.) is hampering the sector five-fold. For example,
Academics on precarious and variable (research) contracts (e.g., fixed term contracts (FTCs)) who are either employed on externally funded projects will likely not stay on that project until the end of their contract because they are seeking new employment. This in turn impacts the project itself, leaving the principal investigator (PI) and permanent (at the HEIs) team members picking up the work leftover, adding to workload (capacities) and leaving little time and effort for completing the aims and objectives of the funded project(s).
In a bid to answer the question above we would like to present a case study of the ‘Adapt Tech, Accessibly Technology’ (ATAT) project which received seed corn money from CHERISH-DE (SU - £8K) and the Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Area (OU - £2,125.40K) to conduct a series of online workshops, and co-create outputs during the pandemic (2020-21). Staff salaries were not paid for this project (as is usually the case for externally funded projects via UKRI et al.). Aims and objectives were to:
It was key and intentional to include and hear the voices of older adults, who were identified with low digital skills and from low SES backgrounds. Across an array of research, voices of participants are usually from educated, affluent and Caucasian backgrounds, while there is a paucity of voices heard from diverse SES citizens. This in turn does not reflect society, and causes echo chambers, whereby members of research teams are unfamiliar with citizens from low and diverse SES backgrounds, and therefore unable to relate to the day-to-day concerns of respective citizens.
Based on existing and positive relationships within the research team and with two stakeholders who played an integral role in participant recruitment for this multi-and-interdisciplinary project, all online workshops included everyone and upon completion of the project (June 2021).
Feedback from participants included: how they felt valued and that their voices and experiences had been listened to, as a result they felt more confident in using digital technologies
The following outputs from the ATAT project is:
Research institutions and groups
Across all HEIs in the UK there are units/departments whereby they act as the ‘gate keeper(s)’ for the submission of grants (various calls and size (£-££££)). As noted in the previous section many academics are invited to peer-review research grants via UKRI and other funders such as the Dunhill Medical Trust et al. Academics on FTCs who are expected to write and submit research grants are sometimes not allowed by such units/departments because they do not have a ‘strong profile’ and when queried by the individual wishing to submit, they are informed that they know what the funders are looking for.
However, individuals who are submitting grants are the very academics that are invited to externally review for UKRI and other funders not academic support staff in HEIs. Therefore, these narratives impact the morale of academics who are on FTCs and who are aiming for progression through HEI promotional boards. Furthermore, conducting funding reviews are not blinded to the reviewer, and therefore is open to (unconscious) bias by the reviewer whilst also fostering conflict of interest. This in turn also impacts the reproducibility and research integrity of existing projects whether externally funded or not, due to this experience the academics in question are more likely to move on to other employment and in some cases even leave the Country to take up positions at international institutions or enter the private sector.
Research funders, including public funding bodies
As part of the grant writing process and the notion that submissions will be more attractive if they include co-production activities with various actors, research development groups and industry partners being involved in the process from the offset. In recent years there has been an expectation from across all funders that there would be a pathway to impact which is expected to be integrated into certain sections of respective applications.
This notion leads academics to understand without co-production activities and various actors playing their respective role(s) their submission(s) stand a less chance of success. This too adds to the reproducibility crisis and research integrity because partners will be expecting some form of financial reward for their time and effort, co-production, and dissemination activities.
University overheads often mean that research with third sector partners on smaller grants is not pursued as, there is no money to adequately pay partners for their often-substantial contribution to a project. Furthermore, on funded projects there is often a fundamental problem when it comes to paying lay people for their contributions, with finance staff expecting proof of right to work, from lay members, and restricting how many times they can receive non- cash reimbursement in the form of vouchers. Additionally, if an academic who is on an FTC has shared their contacts, and then leaves partners may not be so confident in continuing to work with the research team.
The private sector can and does play a role in grant capture similar to that of charities and stakeholders being partnered and named on bids. However, reproducibility within the private sector and industry can also be difficult because of the certain aims and objectives, and/or the speciality of the industry. Additionally, within specific programmes of research such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund SMEs are encouraged to lead and/or be named on grants but may not have the financial means to match fund thousands of pounds, yet this is expected. And it is only when announcements of successful projects are made does the sector see large corporations (e.g., fuel companies, technology companies etc.) included which builds confusion and unrealistic expectations and notions.
There has been a general consensus perceived as an unwritten rule that higher ranking academics (e.g., Associate/Professor) should lead grant proposals and successes because they are
a. viewed as having a track record,
b. they are viewed as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and
c. it is what is expected.
However, this notion is not helpful nor is it appropriate especially when lower rank academics are the expert(s) in a particular field(s) or have a higher profile (greater than their superiors) but who are deemed unsuitable to lead (as a principal investigator) and in some cases are expected to offer up their own research idea as part of the grant proposal and they in turn do not receive recognition. This leads to poor morale by lower ranking academics and restricts opportunities to build experience which would in turn generate further opportunities.
Furthermore, if academics were to want to replicate a (pilot) study or conduct minor changes to study (e.g., sample size, demographics, and other variables), and who had already received seed corn money for a pilot but wish to apply for larger funding options this may not be perceived as proactive innovation whether by the institution and/or the funder. However, replicating research whereby staff costs, consumables and appropriate costs to partners is recognised is not available and/or perceived as unattractive to funders, which may also be the narrative passed on from academic support units. Given the competitiveness of securing funding across the UK, the return on investment and the requirement of academics to pay for their salaries/keep them in contract, is perceived by the notion of grants should be innovative, with the kudos of delivering something new.
This body of evidence has illustrated a case study of how co-production activities can be positive for everyone involved, while also detailing live examples of expectations, assumptions, and behaviour throughout the sector. However, the AT-AT project would not necessarily be reproducible because a replicable study would involve different research team members, albeit with the same stakeholders and participants could be recruited. Therefore, we believe this type of positive and successful research and outputs is down to the personalities, openness, creative and innovative approaches, and behaviours of team members. Having a sense of understanding, empathy and knowledge of respective backgrounds, issues and concerns by all members is a key to success. Unfortunately to just say “I understand about digital skills and literacy of people from low SES” is not sufficient nor good enough.
Recommendations and considerations
We would like to propose a series of recommendations and considerations for the committee below