Strengthening the link between practice and academia: Riding the Big Red Loop

This post is about how those in practice, particularly those in public service, can contribute to academic research. It’s also about how academic institutions can incorporate the work of practitioners. It explores these questions using the Big Red Loop of research. OK it’s a bit niche but there you go.

The ideas for this post and for the Big Red Loop come from a day I spent with the lovely people at INLOGOV and in particular from Dr Stephen Jeffares. An earlier conversation with Dr Alan Netherwood also helped a lot. They have both given me some really useful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

The three loops of research

The idea we came up with at the INLOGOV day was that both individuals and institutions can use the idea of the ‘big red loop’ to think about how practice links with academic research. We contrast this big red loop with a medium sized green loop and small purple one.

Here are the three loops with a short explanation of each:

The small purple loop

Traditionally academia worked on the small purple loop. Research insights informed outputs such as books and articles. These led to debates amongst academics that fed into new research being done (and yes this is an extreme oversimplification).

The medium sized green loop

More recently academics have been encouraged to generate and notice impact.

According to the recent Stern Review of the Research Excellence Framework, this means not just socio-economic impact but also:

… impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field, and impacts on teaching.

Introducing impact gives us the medium sized green loop.

Significantly, Stern also says that for impact to count it must follow from research of academic quality. You can’t have impact if you don’t have the academic outputs to go with it.

The big red loop

The final stage following impact is practice.

Practice reflects the changes on the ground that follow from policy change and the application of new models that often come with it. Practice in this context is the application of academic impact.

At the same time, practice offers a rich source of insights that can inform research agendas and projects. Practice can inform research and so the loop starts again.

In reality all three loops are likely to be happening at the same time. It will be the difference in emphasis that will matter.

The ‘practice academic'

While those working in academic institutions have clear roles, those who make their living outside of the academy aren’t so easily described.

For the sake of this piece, I’m going to call someone who is engaged with academic work but who makes their living outside of academic institutions, a practice academic.

A practice academic might be someone employed in a public service, or by a think tank or someone who works as a freelance consultant. They will have solid academic qualifications and possibly a relationship with an academic institution as an associate or a research fellow for example.

Just a couple of notes on this.

First, this is different to the idea of an independent researcher; someone who is paid to do academic work but who isn’t actually on the payroll of an academic institution (turns out that independent researcher has another meaning within the Research Excellence Framework relating, I think, to those who demonstrate independence in their research practice within an academic institution — confusing eh?).

Second , it’s worth noting that I’m using the word academic in its loosest sense. Within higher education, an academic is someone with a particular level of achievement and status. I’m not sure there is a better term for me to use — researcher almost works but you can be a researcher without any connections to academia. All suggestions welcome!

Tips for practice academics

So what does the big red loop suggest in practical terms for the practice academic?

First it suggests you need a strong relationship with the impact work being done by academic institutions. It is this work that creates both the imperatives for public bodies to change and the tools and techniques for them to do so.

The practice academic can therefore find purpose, credibility and structure for their work by association with academic institutions — whether they are independent or working within a public body.

At the same time the practice academic should be collating insights from their work and feeding them into academic institutions so that they can be used to inform research agendas.

Using paid work as primary research material is problematic but insights from practice can offer new questions for researchers to ask and new areas to explore.

Beyond this the practice academic might extend their role to that of a policy entrepreneur. In other words taking a more proactive role in the big red loop and seeking to influence research agendas in pursuit of specific goals that they are personally passionate about.

Tips for academic institutions

For academic schools and departments the question is how best to incorporate practice academics into their workflow in order to improve their outputs and impact.

Thinking about how practitioners can be best set up to deliver ‘impact’ on the ground will be one area. Building networks to disseminate good practice, providing training on tools and offering bespoke consultancy in partnership with practitioners are all ideas worth exploring.

Similarly, creating mechanisms for drawing in insights from practitioners to support the development of research ideas and funding applications should be thought through. Holding ‘insight days’ for groups of practitioners to share their experiences, encouraging and hosting blog posts and partnering practitioners with academics might all be worth considering.

Beyond that it is possible to bring in practice academics at every stage of the big red loop— as researchers, as co-authors of articles and book chapters, and as advisors for policy makers at the impact stage.

All of which should be good for research and good for practice.

Photo credit wikimedia commons