Investing in engaged research

High angle view of people on street

Reflections on how the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) continues to take a lead in promoting engaged research involving diverse global communities.

As my retirement date approached, I took the time to reflect on the many highlights and learning opportunities during my time with the research councils.

Legacies from the Connected Communities programme

The Connected Communities programme was certainly one of those highlights. The programme:

  • supported 280 projects
  • involved 900 community partnerships
  • involved 77 HEIs in all four nations and 12 regions of the UK.

I was reminded of its success by some recent analysis of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) identifying over 50 impact case studies, across 30 universities and 19 disciplines, which were underpinned by 70 different Connected Communities projects.

These case studies articulate how the programme delivered diverse and meaningful benefits to communities the length and breadth of the country, improving health and wellbeing, redressing social injustices and empowering individuals to tackle significant challenges.

AHRC’s leadership of the programme partly reflected the strengths and diverse traditions of engaged research across the breadth of the arts and humanities, many of which are noted in the programme’s, Creating Living Knowledge report. The programme added to that richness through further research, innovation and experimentation as well as critical reflection and consolidating learning from the past.

There are many useful legacies from that programme. Some of these were intangible and were revealed by looking from the perspective and values of different community participants, as some of the projects, such as the Starting from Values project explored.

However, there are also a tangible set of resources such as guidance and case studies on ethical principles and practice in community-based participatory research, a ‘foundation series’ of reviews and an excellent book series (now up to 11 volumes) – more information on these can be found on the programme’s webpages.

Building out of the programme the Common Cause Research project drew together learning from engaged research with Black and minority ethnic communities and also produced a collection of valuable resources for future research available from the project’s website. The poster produced by the project outlining 10 principles for community-university partnerships, ‘fair trade’ in engaged research, deserves to adorn more staff common room walls and provides a useful stimulus to reflection on building mutually beneficial research partnerships.

I am pleased that the legacy from the programme lives on within AHRC, where community engagement remains a key aspect of the council’s vision, objectives and priorities and is embedded across a wide range of opportunities and activities. It is also increasingly being taken forward across UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as the recently announced opportunity to develop community research networks developed in collaboration with the Young Foundation, illustrates.

Engaged research goes global

Researchers under the AHRC international development portfolio have been developing and adapting arts and humanities engaged research approaches for international collaborative research and working across cultures, interfacing with well-established engagement traditions within international development research. They have been exploring how community engagement can be made more resilient, safe, ethical, equitable and sustainable in a diverse range of contexts.

This includes more challenging contexts for doing research, such as conflict affected regions and working with groups exposed to higher risks. AHRC-funded researchers have taken a leading role in developing the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR)’s ‘Guidance on Safeguarding in International Development Research and guidance recently published on UKRI’s good research resource hub on Ethical Research in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Contexts (PDF, 335KB).

As many of these international collaborative projects continue to remind us, there is an ongoing need to critically reflect on whose voices are not ‘in the room’ or being heard, and how approaches may need to be adapted to address inequalities in power, in different contexts or for different community groups or to meet individual participants’ needs. These include, for example, taking into account neurodivergence, diverse ages and capabilities and cultural and language differences. There is also increasing sophistication in how we more comprehensively address ethical and safeguarding factors, for example, around re-traumatisation and risks of reprisals against individuals who speak out for human rights in fragile contexts.

In addition, the pandemic has seen an acceleration of advances in digital and other methods of engagement both internationally and within the UK. There is much we can learn in terms of more inclusive and environmentally sustainable practices but also an ongoing need for vigilance and reflection about where there are risks that innovations will replicate existing inequalities and exclusions or create new ones.

New opportunities

Two current AHRC opportunities provide particular opportunities to develop engaged research with groups that are not always ‘included in the research room’ and often at the front line in experiencing intersecting inequalities. The opportunities for international networks for disability-inclusive global development and research partnerships with indigenous researchers place voice, inclusion and equitable partnerships at their core and in the spirit of ‘nothing about us without us’. They provide particular opportunities to adapt and innovate approaches to research co-creation and co-design in ways which reflect the needs and contexts faced by specific communities as well as to share learning across cultural and national boundaries.

However, opportunities for community engaged research are not limited to specific opportunities such as these. Whether through open opportunity grants, fellowships with cultural institutions, innovating in the creative and digital economy, developing access to facilities or training the next generation of researchers, there are many opportunities to embed and develop inclusive approaches to community engagement.

This is also an area of strength that arts and humanities research can bring to cross-disciplinary research, not just as an add on in terms of inclusive and creative dissemination or reflection on societal impacts, but bringing in engaged approaches and diverse voices and lived experience upstream into agenda setting, research co-design and active participation and co-production. As an example, I was delighted to see two Connected Communities researchers take a lead on two large engaged research projects under the Natural Environment Research Council-led cross-council Future of UK Treescapes programme.

It is also pleasing to see many of these ideas gaining traction more widely globally such as the Adaptation Research Alliance’s, Adaptation Research for Impact Principles, which calls for engagement with the most vulnerable groups to be put at the centre of action-oriented research that supports effective adaptation to climate change across all stages of the research process. UKCDR’s Equitable Partnerships Resource Hub also provides a valuable link to guidance and principles for working with communities globally. This includes, for example, the Trust Consortium’s, Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings, article two of which states, “Local communities and research participants should be included throughout the research process, wherever possible, from planning through to post-study feedback and evaluation, to ensure that their perspectives are fairly represented.”

Future leadership

I hope that researchers planning engaged research in the future will take advantage of the resources created over the past decade by AHRC’s support for community engaged research and that the legacies from these past initiatives will endure through informing future research practice. Translating this into meaningful ‘action on the ground’ is a continuing challenge.

A further key future challenge is to ensure that arts and humanities researchers can continue to bring their strengths, such as combining creativity and critical reflection, to upstream community engagement in future major cross-disciplinary initiatives, including to the core of UKRI’s strategic themes, such as ‘building a greener future’, ‘better health, ageing and wellbeing’, ‘building a secure and resilient world’ and ‘creating opportunities, improving outcomes’.

Finally, there is a need to keep the dialogue going and to continue to share experience and learning, through social and other media.

Top image:  Credit: Orbon Alija, E+ via Getty Images

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.