This week Mona’s guest is Christina Boswell, Professor of Politics, and Dean of Research at the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHSS). She is also Vice-President of Public Policy at the British Academy.
Mona Siddiqui: First of all can you tell us a little bit more about your research and your role as Dean of Research?
Christina Boswell: My research explores how different types of knowledge, information, data and expertise are used in policy making and in political debates and I focus in particular on how different types of knowledge are mobilised in policy making on immigration – so clearly very topical. Obviously I don’t get as much time to do that kind of research as I might like because my Dean of Research role has been dominating my work over the last four or so years, but it’s a hugely enjoyable role. In that role I’m responsible for supporting research and impact across our 11 wonderful, diverse and flourishing schools. Working on things like supporting interdisciplinary initiatives through centres and our themes, leading the REF submission, and increasingly, especially in the context of Covid, making sure that we’re addressing any of the inequalities related to research support which have emerged because of the pandemic and lockdown.
MS: Going back to that word, interdisciplinary, we use it a lot, but as a University, do you think, at least in CAHSS, that we are quite interdisciplinary?
CB: Yes we absolutely are and we have many, wonderful, highly interdisciplinary initiatives. We have around 70 centres in our College; we have major initiatives like Edinburgh Futures Institute; there are many, many exciting hubs and networks for interdisciplinary research. I think much of our most exciting research does occur in those spaces so, within Schools, but increasingly also across Schools.
MS: And you say that your research explores the relationship between knowledge and public policy. The conversations we’ve been having over the last few months, whether it’s public health, or whether it’s immigration, where do you think the strengths and the weaknesses are? I mean, how much knowledge does inform public policy?
CB: I think we’ve seen a huge and very welcome shift through the pandemic in terms of public understanding of science. There is much more in-depth media coverage of science than was the case previously – people are discussing in detail things like whether a paper is peer reviewed or what the methodology is behind a particular finding. That’s wonderful and I think that’s been more pronounced in the case of medicine and life sciences than it has with social science, arts and humanities.
MS: But do you not think that’s also because media, in a way, takes science and life sciences more seriously than it does arts and humanities?
CB: I think that’s absolutely true. I’m not suggesting the blame lies in our methods of communication. I think there is a sense of a hierarchy of sciences but I do also think that some of our work across CAHSS does tend to be a little bit more fragmented, perhaps, than some of the STEM research. I think that means that rather than thinking about a collective, or a way of synthesising research findings, we often talk about our own individual corner and the research that we’re doing and I think that has less impact than thinking about broader, collective knowledge in a field.
MS: Do you think the University can actually do something about that to raise awareness? Because we’ve talked a lot about impact but what you’re talking about is something slightly different.
CB: Yes I’m really talking about science communication but the reason I’m talking about that in response to a question on impact is I think it’s actually really important for impact. I think one of the structural barriers to really focusing on better science and research communication is that the REF encourages us to think about impact in quite a narrow way. Actually public engagement and public understanding of science can have a huge impact on policy and political debate in a way that really shapes and can reframe what decisions are made in public policy. I do think it’s actually quite closely related but a relatively neglected area in the REF. The REF doesn’t really reward that kind of engagement as an end in itself.
MS: No and I think this is a really interesting conversation – really relevant as we move forward.
So Christina, as you know this series is about sharing one regret and one hope, so if you look to your recent or distant past, what is one regret you might be able to share with us?
CB: I spent quite a few years as a postdoc in European countries including six years in Hamburg. I do keep up with my research collaborators across Europe but I’ve found it really quite painful how Brexit has created a barrier to working together and that’s not just in terms of the formal things like mobility or funding, and so on, but I think there’s a real psychological and social barrier now. I think it’s just no longer taken for granted when I’m discussing research or collaborating with European colleagues that we’re part of the same community in the way that we were when we were in the EU and I find that really very painful.
MS: Yes I feel that something has be ruptured almost.
And what is one hope that you carry forward?
CB: So we’ve been trying to identify and, where possible, mitigate some of the adverse effects of Covid on certain members of our research community and in particular those with onerous caring responsibilities but others too. I really hope we don’t lose sight of that agenda. I think that the impacts of Covid are not just going to be in the year or two of restricted travel or more onerous caring responsibilities but I think they’re going to be felt in the medium to long term in terms of the impact on people’s careers and that could be a huge setback for equality and diversity. We’ve got to keep on the case and we’ve got to keep monitoring those longer term impacts and making sure we do everything we can so that those, especially with protected characteristics, don’t see their research careers in any way undermined or impeded.
Professor Christina Boswell will take up the role of Vice-Principal Research and Enterprise in mid-2022.
Photography: Rachael Sture