Defining Responsibility in Research

Development Policy18 Feb 2010Alexander von Rosenbach

It is clear from a survey of the panels taking place today that there are many unresolved questions about the changing roles of academics. One of the key themes emerging here in New Orleans centres on ‘responsibility’. Do academics have to be responsible to anyone but themselves? If so, are academics responsible to the needs of individuals? Communities? Governments? Or perhaps some combination of the three?

In one panel this morning, the issue was first introduced by Yasushi Ikeo (Ritsumeikan University, Japan), who argued that the role of the researcher “is to protect ordinary people’s daily lives”. This, he states, is principally achieved by acting as a bridge between government and people, often those people who otherwise have difficulty getting their voices heard in official channels. He himself took up this duty by participating in sit-ins protesting the Japanese government’s perceived inability (or unwillingness) to protect the people of Okinawa from the invasive construction of new US military bases.

Through this lens, the responsibility of the researcher can be considered in two ways. Firstly, the researcher’s responsibility to ‘ordinary people’ almost by definition puts the researcher at odds with the government – as indicated by author’s decision to sit-in on protests. Secondly, the researcher’s responsibility is strongly community-oriented.

This is a theme that was picked up later by Marcela Goncalves (McMaster University, Canada), who discussed her personal experiences conducting field research in two three-month periods living with indigenous communities on Brazil’s borders. There, she came to a similar conclusion that the academic has a responsibility to the community (of people) being researched, if only because it is unfair to treat the local people simply as ‘objects’ of research. They are ‘subjects’, with needs, ambitions and fears that need to be respected during the course of rigorous academic research.

With two panel members arguing for a need for academics to feel some sort of local community responsibility, it is then interesting to turn to the paper presented by my fellow blogger, Marieke Hounjet. She examined the trend of the increasing expectation of relevance of academic researcher, focusing particularly on how the UK government is increasingly trying to get academics to produce research that is useful to policy-makers. Namely, this means that the UK (and the US and EU governments) are trying to frame academic responsibility in terms of a ‘public good’ – expanding the notion of community from the local level to the national level.

Marieke outlined several approaches currently being undertaken in the UK, the most important of which is a pilot to introduce ‘impact’ sections on academic funding application forms. These require applicants to describe how their research projects will produce ‘bang for buck’ – how publicly-sourced funding will be translated into tangible public benefits achieved through influence on policymaking.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has produced a strong backlash in academia. While, as Marcela and Yasushi indicate, academics often have a strong personal sense of their community responsibilities, few want to see such responsibility mandated into their research – this, they argue, risks jeopardising academic identity, academic freedom and academic integrity.

This issue comes strongly to the fore when you consider the responsibility of the academic working on issues of national security. This is a subject that, given my own expertise and interest, I will touch upon in greater depth in upcoming posts. However, it is suffice to say here that the boundaries of community responsibility become extremely sensitive in this field. Are academics researching Islamic radicalisation in the UK responsible to their research subjects? Or are these responsibilities superseded by those of the academic’s ‘national community’? Moreover, do these responsibilities change if a national government is funding said research (by way of grants)?

These are questions that I hope will be discussed more thoroughly by readers in the comments section below, and by upcoming panels.