It’s Baader-Meinhof time again. I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve heard about or talked about “social license” in recent meetings with researchers and universities. It is increasingly the destination of many conversations about research impact:
A text diagram with an imaginary conversation flowing through different questions but always coming back to an answer relating to social license
The relationship between research, impact and social license, by Charlie Rapple
Many of these discussions then turn to examples where the social contract between researchers and the rest of the world has gone wrong — where the social license to operate has been revoked. For example, communities that are the subjects of (and / or the intended beneficiaries of) an area of research becoming fed up with being “subjects” and “beneficiaries”, and feeding back to the researchers along the lines of “we’re sick of you coming here for a week, poking us with needles, lecturing us, and then disappearing never to be seen again.” There is apparently an Alaskan native saying, “Researchers are like mosquitoes; they suck your blood and leave.”[1]
My attention was focused on this by a quote in a research project that I wrote about earlier this year: “A lot of researchers have an ambition to work with marginalized communities but they don’t already have a relationship with those communities. You need to make sure that the process is set up in a way that tries to shift that power hierarchy as much as possible.” It intersects with other heated debates from the last couple of years:
Photo of participants in a march for science funding
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash
Given this backlash, with researchers seen as (at best) irrelevant or at worst self-serving “academic saviors”, are researchers in danger of seeing their social license to operate being revoked? If so, what should we do?
For me — and of course, Miles’s Law likely applies here — this alarming trend is yet further evidence that better communication is needed to break down the barriers between researchers and the wider world to which they contribute so much. And this engagement needs to happen much more consistently at earlier stages of the research process. “Relevance” continues to be a critical concept (another quote from our research project: “We’re in the post-truth era: it’s difficult to open doors and have a conversation with certain communities. It needs deeper engagement – you can’t just rock up on your science bus and expect them to listen! You need to make sure you’re relevant in the first place, because why would they bother to speak to you otherwise?”) but another that is gaining momentum is “co-creation”. It’s not a new concept but I heard a great talk about it this week from a research funder, Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy at Carnegie UK. She talked about use of academic evidence being low because of a lack of engagement and co-creation early in the research process, with academics pushing back on co-creation in particular because of concerns that it is a more expensive, time-consuming approach to research, and one that is outside their comfort zone, both in terms of being culturally complex (managing behavioral norms of non-academic partners) and in terms of raising the bar of expectation / recognition (as Wallace put it, going from being the “big fish in a small pond” creating academic evidence, to a small fish when it comes to creating change).
It is perhaps ironic that more widespread communication and engagement with research can be seen as both the source of the current backlash, and part of the solution. Perhaps, to borrow the Tuckman model, we have been through the “forming” phase of engagement, communication, and co-creation, and are in the “storming” phase. Academia needs to hold steady and double down on engagement before the promise of “performing” results in renewal of its slightly dog-eared social license.
[1] Quoted in Cochran et al. “Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Implications for Participatory Research and Community”. American Journal of Public Health. 98 (1): 22–27. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.093641
Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple is co-founder of Kudos, which helps researchers, publishers and institutions to maximize the reach and impact of their research. She is also Honorary Secretary of UKSG and Associate Editor of Learned Publishing.

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Discussion

6 Thoughts on "Researchers’ Social License – in Need of Renewal?"

You may also wish to add the broken tenure system to the list of issues related to the social license. Tenured professors routinely violate Federal and State laws, as well as the rules and regulations of their own universities. They face few, if any, consequences. Tenure is granted at a university level, not at a Federal or State level. Federal and State laws supersede tenure. “Research freedom” has been extended to cover any and all transgressions as much as possible. What the public sees is an unethical and immoral cesspool that undermines their ability to believe in the research results produced in such an environment. When academia regains a moral compass, people may begin to respect the research results again.

“Routinely”? How about “some individuals, in some instances, but rarely overall”? Most people are law-abiding or at least, as Hamlet put it, “indifferent honest.”

Hi Jewel, I’d be really interested in examples of what you’re referring to! I’m based on the UK and less familiar with examples from the US. But perhaps related is the issues of “fat cat salaries”, which has been an issue here in the UK, with various university vice chancellors being called out for huge salaries (while academics have held strikes to protest at cuts to their pension funds). See for example https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-42260090 and https://www.ft.com/content/b1c8c900-305f-11e9-8744-e7016697f225. Please do share links to the challenges you’re describing!

Very interesting take on the social license. I am wondering how does the social license dimension of almost the entirety of Humanities and Social Sciences Research, and also basic research in subjects like Mathematics look like? Would you please elaborate?

Hi Deen, I think social sciences have a particular need for social licence. Social science is sometimes defined as being “the scientific study of human beings” (https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/what-social-science). Many social science projects and fields will rely on participation by, and data from, human beings. You need those people to “approve” of that work, and find it worthwhile, for them to be willing to contribute their time, expertise, samples, stories etc. In basic research such as Mathematics, the concept of “social licence” may be little more than a willingness, on the part of taxpayers and donors, to continue funding research. But very quickly, as you move from (say) mathematics into computer modelling, “social licence” might involve the need for stakeholders to accept and apply the results of that work. For example, communities with the potential to be affected by natural disasters need to trust data scientists’ advice to evacuate. Does that answer your question in the way you hoped?

Thank you, Charlie. This is really helpful. Essentially, we should then assume that society always knows what is worthwhile, especially in foresight. It could be a problematic assumption if you ask philosophers, but nevertheless, it is good to be aware of the social license aspect in research.

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