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Policy relevant social research – looking to the future at TCRU

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 November 2023

Small boy pointing on woman's lap, in front of white blossoming bushes

Credit: Culture Creative / Adobe.

Alison Lamont and Alison Koslowski.

This is the third in a series of blog posts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU) and launch of Social Research for our Times. Following Peter Moss’s reflection on the founding directions of TCRU under its first director, Jack Tizard, and Claire Cameron and Eva Lloyd’s post showing some current strands of its work, we look to the future. In particular, we examine some of the ongoing challenges facing TCRU as we continue to work on delivering research with the strategic aim of informing policy. New, but quickly familiar challenges emerge: the slippery question of ‘impact’ and how to get research findings into the right hands at the right time, as well as the age-old fight to secure funding, now in a ‘post-Brexit’ landscape. In the conclusion to Social Research for our Times we consider these in connection with the local challenge of sustaining our research identity and our research. We focus on a) how we communicate our research findings, and to whom; and b) how we strengthen links with existing and prospective partners, especially now with European partners.

This post explores two modes of working that are already in action among TCRU colleagues and are promising avenues for building the Unit’s policy relevance.

How do you inform a research environment?

TCRU has a long history of working directly with policy makers, practitioners, professionals, service users and the wider population. Increasingly, earlier models of promulgating research evidence to inform central government policy have been supplemented with a broader understanding of policy actors, and a more holistic understanding of the policy environment. Instead of a focus on targeting individual policy makers or groups of civil servants, TCRU has broadened its scope to inform research environments: this mean sharing our findings widely and accessibly with civil society as much as with policy makers, and building further on the participatory research approaches innovated by the Unit.

An upcoming example is Humera Iqbal’s exhibition and film screening of Adrift on Paper Boats, launching on Thursday 16 November, which emerges from her and her collaborators’ research around statelessness. The exhibition and film tell the story of what it means to be stateless, through the eyes of the Pakistani Bengali community – a community linked to the sea, that has been grappling with citizenship issues in Pakistan for over 50 years. These productions are matched by the more traditional research outputs of articles and books, but draw in diverse audiences beyond the so-called ‘ivory tower’. Being able to bring rich, research-based stories to the wider public conversation opens up new windows for TCRU’s work to find resonance and impact. 2023

How do we work with Europe after Brexit?

TCRU colleagues frequently work with international scholars and policy makers and participate in much exchange with international partners, going on as well as hosting research visits – both within and beyond Europe. Universities offer ways to maintain these vital forms of internationalism with our neighbours, near and far. In particular, TCRU colleagues have been involved in providing policy relevant expertise to the European Commission and related bodies such as the European Institute for Gender Equality.  Indeed, we have hugely benefited from access to European Union frameworks, networks and funding, and it was wonderful news to recently learn that the UK will continue to able to participate in Horizon Europe.

An example of ongoing collaboration with European partners is the participation of TCRU colleagues Margaret O’Brien, Alison Koslowski, Peter Moss and Katherine Twamley in an EU COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action, focused in this case on Social Sustainability and Paid Parental Leave Policies. This is a forum which, among other things, helps us to continue to reach and engage with a policy audiences beyond Whitehall and beyond our shores, supported by wider public engagement. The project, in turn, builds on the International Network on Leave Policies and Research, which today has members from 50 countries, across Europe and beyond. Founded and led for most of its 18 years by TCRU members, it exemplifies the Unit’s international reach and collaborative nature.

TCRU at 100?

Looking forward, whilst we recognise that these kinds of responses are partial and taking place in a dynamic context of complex systemic challenges, we hope that they will keep us open to innovation – and maintain our founder Jack Tizard’s insistence on a place for ‘strategic’ as well as ‘responsive’ research, bringing a longer-term perspective and theoretically driven body of research to policy debate, hopefully for many more decades to come.

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