BAM Council member Simon Collinson writes on the changes in the ESRC approach to funding is opening up opportunities for business and management researchers

The ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) has made significant changes in recent years in its approach to funding social science research in the UK. While maintaining its reputation for funding top-quality research through its peer review processes it has taken steps to improve the relevance and impact of the research it funds.

Better engagement with policymakers, practitioners and the public in general is now a driving principle. A range of new funding initiatives have emerged from this agenda, linked to its main strategic priorities of: ‘Economic Performance and Sustainable Growth’, ‘Influencing Behaviour and Informing Interventions’ and ‘A Vibrant and Fair Society’. These offer new opportunities for business and management researchers, many of whom have always engaged closely with practitioners.

Despite ongoing cuts in Government spending the ESRC has successfully maintained its annual budget of over £200 million but has sharpened its strategic focus and launched a range of new funding mechanisms as part of its Delivery Plan 2011-2015. In order to encourage social science researchers to ‘build relevance’ into their research the ESRC has developed guidance under the Research Councils UK ‘Pathways to Impact’ initiative. For many business and management researchers user needs are already strongly embedded in the research process. This puts them at an advantage in competing for ESRC funding, but they will need to make the relevance explicit and present clear plans for not just dissemination but impact.

A range of knowledge exchange schemes complement this approach. The ‘Follow on Funding’ scheme provides the opportunity to apply for funding for knowledge exchange and impact generating activities that follow-on from a specific piece of research. The Knowledge Exchange Opportunities scheme, to support interaction and exchange between academics and research users, will be combined with Follow on Funding into a single scheme that enables knowledge exchange throughout the lifecycle of research. The combined scheme will be launched for the next call in December 2011. These complement the long-standing ‘Knowledge Transfer Partnerships’ (KTPs) which are co-funded by a range of organisations, led by the Technology Strategy Board. The ESRC invested £1.3 million into KTPs last year and will continue to fund these. Placement Fellowships and the Student Internship scheme also promote closer engagement with research users.
A number of initiatives are specific to business and management research. Business Capacity Building Clusters, including a creative industries cluster in Scotland, one in sport, leisure and tourism in Exeter, the EREBUS (engaging research for business transformation) in the West Midlands and RIBEN, the country-wide Retail network, are multi-partner projects for connecting relevant research to the challenges of firms and policymakers in specific regions and sectors. ‘Knowledge navigators’ to explore and develop better links in the Retail and Financial services sectors are a new ESRC initiative to strengthen sector-specific engagement and maximise the impact of social science on business.

Overall, this new emphasis by the ESRC aims to do two things. First, to encourage social scientists to think carefully about ways of engaging with potential users throughout the research process, including the co-production of research where suitable. Second, it is about maintaining opportunities for researchers to pursue their own ideas while also guiding some activity into topics of national importance for the benefit of the society that supports this research.

The ESRC website (http://www.esrc.ac.uk/) provides a wide range of guidance and advice on all of the above. It has also developed a ‘Pathways to Impact’ toolkit, which includes a useful (and timely, for those concerned with the Research Excellence Framework) section on how we might define and measure impact.

Professor Simon Collinson
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