Research in Changing Times

14 Jan

The context that social research is operating within is rapidly changing, not least due to extensive cuts and changes in the funding of higher education and research.  For example, one of the major funders of social research in the UK ‑ the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) ‑ has just published its Delivery Plan for 2011-15, which reflects the reduction in real-terms of 12% over four years to its budget.  As part of its streamlining measures, there will be a focus on longer and larger grants, as well as the termination to the Postdoctoral Fellowships and Mid-Career Development Fellowships Schemes.  At the same time, the ESRC will continue to prioritise the generation of economic and societal impact, and this reflects a similar focus on impact within the Research Excellence Framework (a successor to the Research Assessment Exercise).

So, what does this mean for those undertaking research today? Not least it means that it will be harder to get funding, but it also means that we may need to rethink the way that we operate.  In a hard economic climate, it may be difficult to get funding for primary data collection.  On the other hand, there is a wealth of secondary datasets available for researchers to exploit from resources such as the Economic and Social Data Service.  Researchers also need to consider who their work is likely to impact, and how they will communicate this.

Whilst itself grappling with the issues of a changing funding context, ARK (Access, Research, Knowledge) can help researchers during these different times.  Celebrating over 10 years of work, ARK facilitates free access to social and political information on Northern Ireland, and is a joint initiative within Queen’s University and University of Ulster.  It evolved from the realisation that much research remained hidden in desks and shelves of offices all over Northern Ireland and beyond ‑ and even when research results were published, they were not necessarily in an easily-understood form.  ARK was established in 2000 and is now a unique resource that is multi-disciplinary and uses a multi-method approach to help researchers, policy-makers and practitioners understand society and politics in a region that is post-conflict and newly devolved.

So what exactly do we do?  Our work can be broadly divided into four main areas. Surveys have been an integral part of ARK since its inception.  NILT, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, began in 1998, and records public attitudes to a wide range of social policy issues.  The attitudes of younger people are recorded within the Young Life and Times Survey (16 year olds) and the Kids Life and Times Survey (KLT) of 11 year-olds.  Importantly, this suite of surveys provides a record of public opinion, whilst also contributing to public debate.  One feature these surveys have in common is open access.  The dataset from each survey is made publicly available on the ARK website for download without charge within six months after the completion of fieldwork, thus facilitating secondary analysis.  In addition, users can access tables of results for each question, broken down by sex and religion (and age for the NILT survey of adults).  The site also contains the technical notes for each survey, the questionnaires, and contact details for a survey helpline.  The same model of dissemination is also applied to surveys carried out and held by other bodies, which are made available within the Surveys Online (SOL) section.

ARK provides access to a broad range of information on the Northern Ireland conflict, politics and elections. Through its resources ARK aims to facilitate researchers and others in understanding the underlying causes of conflict and to facilitate conflict transformation and peace-building locally and internationally. For example, the Northern Ireland Elections section includes information about elections in Northern Ireland since 1885 and detailed breakdowns of election results.   However, one of the most extensive sections of ARK is the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN), which is an encyclopaedic resource on ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.  Associated to this is a specialist section on the topics of victims, survivors and commemoration in Northern Ireland.  In addition, the Qualitative Archive on the Conflict holds information on qualitative material covering the 35 year span of ‘the Troubles’ in NI (content, availability, recording format etc.) and presents it in a searchable catalogue.

The ARK Policy Unit supports policy development and debate in Northern Ireland by providing information and critical analysis.  The Online Research Bank (ORB) comprises two searchable databases containing bibliographies and lay-friendly summaries of research that has been carried out with adults and children in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years or so.  More recently, our policy-related work has been expanding:  Figuring it Out reveals what social statistics can tell us about social policy in Northern Ireland, whilst a series of Policy Briefs on key issues draw upon published research evidence and discussion within ARK Policy Roundtables.

In summary then, the ARK website provides a variety of different kinds of information including background facts and figures, survey results, research reports, research summaries, audio-visual material and election results.  However, ARK isn’t just a virtual resource – we undertake a wide range of outreach and dissemination activities as well.  These include a public seminar series, which is also available online; lay friendly summaries of key research within our Research Update series; introductory and advance training courses; and educational material for schools, youth organisations and young people.

Of course, ARK’s main resource is its team, and within the School, this comprises Katrina Lloyd, Dirk Schubotz, Robert Miller and Paula Devine.  In these changing and challenging times, the presence of a resource like ARK becomes even more pertinent.

For more information on ARK, visit the website at www.ark.ac.uk.

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