When COMPAS started in 2003, our funders wanted to know how we planned to ‘communicate’ our research. This later became a concern with how knowledge was ‘transferred’ or ‘exchanged’. More recently the emphasis is on research that has ‘impact’. This means not only showing that we have been working with research users and providing them with data and analysis that they can use for ‘evidence’, but also that our work has been of benefit to them. Having an impact beyond the academy is now regularly measured by many organisations funding research in order to demonstrate a practical return on their investment.
The study of migration is not exceptional in this. Indeed, it seems as if those who study it are extremely well placed in this regard, as migration issues are high on policy and political agendas, and are of interest to a wide range of stakeholders, including the general public. Asking for usefulness is, in our field, I think justifiable. As someone responsible for communicating research, I have been encouraged by the growing enthusiasm for communications work driven by the impact agenda. I believe migration research (and arguably all state funded social research) should be useful. Indeed, if we are examining a highly politicized subject, it is not unreasonable to expect a contribution to public debates. But the clamour for impact can go too far. What if research doesn’t come up with answers that anyone likes? And how do we prove impact? Can we ever really know if anyone has actually changed their practice because of our evidence? What about the impact we have that we don’t know about? Furthermore, significant impact can result from fortuitous timing or a chance meeting. Proof is fragile, and much gets crushed in its pursuit. Perhaps what we do is not so different from what we were doing ten years ago, only now we spend precious time measuring and proving impact.
These concerns go beyond migration studies to social sciences more generally. The impact model’s roots in the hard sciences could be to blame. For example, it is easy to see how a drug that cures millions of people of sickness can be defended and justified by pointing to its impact – even if it did have to be tested on animals along the way. So is there any particular impact challenge when it comes to research on migration? One problem is the intense and polarised nature of the migration debate, and the way in which any commentator is seen to be on one ‘side’ or another. Research evidence can be considered tainted if the researcher has personal views and affiliations outside their academic work. Researchers may try to remain neutral and apolitical, but this does not protect them from judgemental categorisation that places them as for or against. It is interesting to me that migration is a topic that most people have an opinion on, and yet we expect researchers to remain aloof.
Academic research on controversial topics has the opportunity to impact on public and policy debate, but migration issues can be so highly politicised that data and analysis have limited power to shift debate. Thirty years of polling have always found the UK public to be wary of immigration, and yet this has no correlation with actual numbers of people entering the country, just as public opposition to migration is not focussed on the largest groups (Blinder et al., 2011). Oftentimes, when it comes to media coverage, the academic is wheeled in to respond to a fast, furious and contested argument where complicated, nuanced analysis doesn’t really fit.
Academics working on less attention-grabbing topics might argue that migration studies is lucky to have the impact bandwagon pass its way, because it is often pulling money along behind it. There are dangers that come with this though; for example, it is easy to fall into a state-defined agenda. Take ‘trafficking’, a concept that regularly features in funding calls, political debate and policies. It has been subject to a great deal of intellectual scrutiny and yet remains misunderstood in public debate. The complicated analysis is ignored in favour of the term that can be adopted to fit lots of very different situations. Although there is definitely appeal in a simple story over a complicated tale, it does make you wonder how many devils are being ignored when the details are ditched.
As someone who helps deliver research to potential publics, my job is easiest to do when the research is good, and not blinkered by only trying to achieve relevance and impact. In migration, as in other fields, we should do research that has integrity, is faithful to its sources, aims, methods and evidence, and walks the fine line between relevance and bombast.
Blinder, S. et al. (2011) Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain, Migration Observatory Report, Oxford: COMPAS.