Matthias Wienroth is a research associate at IHRR who is working on Strategic Science: Research Intermediaries and the Governance of Innovation with Matthew Kearnes. For this project, he is studying the EPSRC from the inside to investigate how it develops strategies for governing science and innovation.
How many times do researchers, applying for research grants to the UK Research Councils, wish they could look ‘behind the scenes’ of where calls for proposals are written and funding programmes are developed? This might provide some understanding as to the drivers influencing the thinking of Research Councils, and how they operate between the needs and views of the research community and the expectations and policies of government. The project Strategic Science: Research Intermediaries and the Governance of Innovation (www.geography.dur.ac.uk/projects/science), undertaken by researchers at the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, attempts to do just that. We aim to identify and examine the storylines and the strategic thinking that constitute the way Research Councils shape technology areas and operate strategically between the research community, government, and also other science support and funding bodies.
Some of the ways we study Research Councils are: speaking with representatives from the diverse councils, observing working meetings, studying a variety of strategic and operational documents, and accompanying a team of portfolio managers in their everyday work. As such, I am writing from ‘behind the scenes’, as it were, from my currently third visit to one of the Research Councils where I am ‘embedded’ in the daily work as an ethnographic researcher. I have been ‘in and out’ of the research council, always staying at strategically vital periods of time according to our research focus since November 2009. As such, my life as ‘embedded’ researcher allows me to take snapshots of strategic activity and connect these in my interpretation of strategic thinking at EPSRC, to then develop an understanding of the larger picture of what science policy in the UK actually means.
Life as an ‘embedded’ researcher means that I share the working environment of those employed within an institution that I wish to understand better. My work thus greatly relies on the willingness of the institution, in this case the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, not simply to host me but also to allow access to staff, meetings and research council work life in general. There are some limits to such immersion of an ‘outsider’ in institutional work, of course; I have access to office space and equipment, and to internal communications via email and intranet (here called a ‘Sharepoint’) as do EPSRC-employed portfolio managers. Apart from conducting individual interviews I also engage in conversation with colleagues during work – when appropriate – and during lunches. Next to the social element, these conversations help me learn about the way managers rationalise their work, how they conceptualise what a strategy is and what it should achieve, and the impact that activities of other stakeholders, both within the institution and outside, have on strategic planning and development. In that vein, yet more formally, it is also helpful for me to attend a number of meetings at different levels of strategic thinking, from the day-to-day management of programmes to ‘high level’ strategy deliberations that aim to connect everyday work to the wider picture of national and international science policy.
Understandably, many of these encounters need to be initiated by myself as ‘the researcher’ as staff at EPSRC might not consider some of their work to be of particular interest to someone outside their remit. Sometimes, this means it can be difficult to become aware of meetings that might be interesting to attend, especially in a formal environment of desk-based work. Mundane everyday tasks provide the fundamental basis for understanding the strategic work that evolves over a longer period of time. Equally, through social interactions with ‘colleagues’, I come to think of the people I share a working environment with, which sometimes gives insight into how EPSRC staff rationalise the development of strategic initiatives. So, here is interplay between my research interests in regard to the thinking in the organisation, and colleagues’ curiosity about my being here. Last week, for example, a member of staff sitting not far from my desk approached me and introduced herself and her colleagues as she felt that I looked lonely sitting at my desk, where indeed, several spaces were unoccupied at that moment. We ended up talking about her work as media officer and communicating EPSRC’s work to government and the public. Chance encounters such as these are one of the more significant advantages of being an embedded researcher, providing the practice and narrative basis for interpreting the larger picture.
I have a few days left at EPSRC for my current stay, after which I will revisit recent interviews and meetings and analyse those more comprehensively, and develop further our interpretation of the strategic agency of research councils. Some of the findings we will present during an internal EPSRC workshop in October 2010, which we see as an opportunity to ‘ground’ our research with those whose everyday work is immersed in the wider picture. Eventually, we will present the overall project findings – and the larger picture – at the end of 2010, aiming at a wider audience of policy and other decision makers, and academics. But in the meantime I will be back at EPSRC for two weeks in September/October 2010.