We Need Critical Scholarship - We Need to Fund Critical Research

02/01/2017 11:53

As a critical scholar I am bias but I believe critical scholarship is vital to any democratic society. I hope to spend some of my forthcoming blogs exploring the responsibilities of the critical researcher, but first I want to explore the difficult environment in which the critical researcher works and explain why critical research is necessary.

Research is no longer assessed solely by its quality, but also by its impact and ability to generate income. In the UK £2billion per year was distributed to universities based on their success in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) which evaluates research output both by quality and by impact; impact is about the reach and significance the research has beyond academia. This income from funding bodies accounts for 29% of the income of the UK's Russell Group universities. Substantial amounts of money are also distributed in the forms of grants by Research Councils and government departments, for example in 2012-13 University College London received £135million of income from Research Councils, whilst Cambridge and Imperial College each received over £100million and another 13 universities secured funding in excess of £30million. This income from Research Councils and government departments accounts for 16% of the income of Russell Group universities, and 12% of their income comes from the private sector including companies and charities. This means that less than 50% of income comes from teaching, so there is a huge financial pressure to research. Only research that has impact or attracts funding however satisfies this financial pressure, meaning that some research has its worth inflated because of the income it generates and other research is undervalued because its success is measured only in financial terms. These pressures are not unique to the UK but replicated the world over, the UK is used as an example simply because it is the environment in which I currently work. The reality is that all of us are under immense pressure to produce impactful research whilst being limited only to be able to pursue research activities for which we can attract funding. This means there it is difficult to engage in critical research in the current academic environment.

Conducting research without resources is difficult, if not impossible. For many academics time can only be allocated to research projects if that time has been paid for by an external agent, many research projects also incur additional costs which must also be met. This means that most research can only happen if it receives external funding and that the research agenda is therefore dictated to an extent by those who fund it. The danger is that some of those with the resources to support research, and therefore the power to direct those resources, are likely to seek to preserve the systems that have provided them with these resources and to protect their power and influence; the pot of resources for projects that are conservative and protect the status quo is enhanced at the cost of those projects which are critical and challenging.

Research is about discovering knowledge and for some knowledge is dangerous, those who wish to control have traditionally tried to control the flow of knowledge; our history is marked by both fascist and communist governments persecuting students and academics and burning books. In the modern world of the internet, censorship and control of the flow of knowledge is much more difficult and the ability to control the discovery of knowledge itself must be a temptation to which those in positions of power will be drawn. Those who hold the purse strings to fund research have this power to control the discovery of knowledge and we, as an academy, have done too little to ensure that this power cannot be wielded irresponsibly. History also teaches us about the value of research that challenges the dominant ideologies of those seeking to preserve the status quo, it is less than a hundred years since women could receive degrees yet as a direct consequence of the work of activist academics I worked alongside many female academics whose brilliance and prestige dwarfs my achievements. The austerity agenda also serves to preserve the dominant ideology as a reduction in research funding necessarily reduces the quantity of academic research which serves to leave the status quo unchallenged, cementing existing dogmas.

It is true however that research funding is limited and that it is right for institutions to seek funding for research to continue, it may even be argued that it would be ungrateful for us to bite the hand that feeds us. However, even if one were to disregard the value of critical research per se there is an important epistemological justification for encouraging and supporting challenging research, a justification that may in fact protect the status quo. Knowledge is an uncertain and fragile thing for the epistemologist, the uncertainty of what it is to know something a challenge. Karl Popper argues that the closest we can get to knowledge is a theory that stands up to falsification and falsification is vital to us advancing knowledge. Popper says that in order to have 'knowledge' we must come up with theories to explain what happens and then try to falsify them, any theory that robustly stands up to our attempts to falsify it can be reasonably described as 'knowledge' until it is later falsified. To advance knowledge we must therefore not only welcome those theories we support but also those theories that challenge, or attempt to falsify, our dominant ideology, for if they fail to falsify it they enhance it.

I, however, am not happy to disregard the value of critical research. I have researched in both the spheres of critical legal studies and critical pedagogy and recognise the value of the dissenting voices including those of feminists, critical race theorists, and queer theorists. Critical research is important because of the relationship between knowledge and power, cultures that have historically been structured so as to disadvantage the interests of women, minority ethnic groups, or those who are different use their control of knowledge to cement dominant ideologies which are often discriminatory, this has led to patriarchy and racism becoming mainstreamed. In the UK the slave trade was abolished, the vote given to women and homosexuality made lawful all as a result of critical voices challenging dominant ideologies, yet these critical voices are still stifled and modern slavery is rife, women in full-time posts still earn on average 13.9% less than their male colleagues, and violence against people because of their sexuality is on the rise. It is vital that those scholars researching from a critical perspective ensure their research is therefore not only supported but also heard, in fact I would argue that the critical scholar not only has the responsibility to help others understand the world but must use their privilege and influence to change it.