Valuing research-rich storytelling skills

A recent article in the Times Higher Education covered a curious finding about how research is perceived by government. According to a study by HEPI, brilliant facts about positive economic impact have little sway and are largely distrusted by government officials. Instead, compelling stories have an edge when it comes to funding success. It’s an interesting insight into how policymakers perceive the value of academic research and may seem counter-intuitive to many.

HEPI’s report concludes with three recommendations. The first one reminds us that HE is one of many sectors, all competing for pots of money. Context is crucial, so we can’t assume everyone will understand things from a HE-only perspective. The second recommendation resonates with our civic university mindset, that research should matter in the local area. In arguing for funding, researchers should demonstrate why they are important to their local communities and regions. Finally, HEPI recommends “thinking beyond utilitarianism”, perhaps the most important point, quoted here in full:

There is scope and appetite for articulating the value of research in ways that do not relate solely to its applied benefits – but to do so requires the imagination and boldness to formulate a vision of how the value of higher education research connects to the ideas of society./ For those who can create and communicate this vision, there is a huge opportunity for influence.

I’ve covered many aspects of our research-rich approaches to teaching and learning at Bristol, and these reflections from HEPI seem to fit with those wider thoughts on what kind of research skills and competencies we are instilling in our graduates.

Now, I will say that we shouldn’t entirely change our practice because of one report from one subset of society, but it is an interesting insight to ponder. It speaks to our very human nature of wanting to be swept up by a story, not bamboozled by facts and figures. The facts and figures need to come alive, so we can intellectually and emotionally connect to it. It is also easier for stories to be shared by non-experts, thus enabling the enthused the promote research independently of the research team.

The report sparks my longstanding interest in how the full cycle of the research system can be conveyed to our students. There are plenty of units across the university that tackle how to engage with the public in some way, such as working with schools and at public festivals. These hands-on real-world experiences are hugely impactful and develop a plethora of communication skills. But, are we also articulating how these very same skills can translate into funding applications? We all know the realities of higher education careers means that funding successes are hugely prized! Are we teaching our students how to craft stories or spout facts with confidence? There are a host of skills involved in creating a story, shaping a narrative, and weaving a tale that captures the imagination. Do we champion these skills or do we mute them in comparison to others?

Partly, this comes down to what we value – can we spend time on opportunities for this type of research skills building within the curriculum? Or do we think other skills are more important? These questions can only be answered in context, of course. Secondly, do we have confidence as teachers to teach such skills building? It might be outside of our experience, so we need to reflect on how we can address this personally or ask colleagues for suggestions to fill this gap.

Having spent over a decade working in public engagement, including translating academic fact into public stories, I personally see the value and have witnessed the impact on transforming public understanding of research practice. I do recall, however, how some do not value that kind of activity (there is a much larger problem in that research funding doesn’t well support such work). In some ways, perhaps, the HEPI report can help shore up opinions to the reticent on why story telling is not just a transferable skill but also a skill essential to the survival of any research areas which are largely dependent on government grants. In the end, it’s a bit about perspective, understanding value from different points of view, and seeing how specific skillsets can actually win the day!

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