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Research Infrastructures: A REaL Research Resource

In the third of the series, Mike Hynes, School of Political Science & Sociology, National University of Ireland Galway’, discusses the case for a REaL research resource.

From time-to-time I can’t help but think of myself as a social science researcher focussing on sustainability and climate breakdown as the poor relation to many other disciplines across the university and, indeed, across the third level sector generally. While colleagues in business, medicine, engineering and the ‘hard’ sciences appear to be somewhat well supported, money for research in crucial areas of environmental social sciences is frequently rather thin on the ground. I must premise my remarks by saying that I’m a relative newcomer to this space – an early career researcher, so-to-speak but I do detect an air of almost giddy appreciation once even small amounts of money are secured by some social science researchers; researchers who are attempting to understand and tackle some of the socially and ecologically disruptive issues of our time.

Why is this the case, I often ask myself? Indeed, recognition of the research work in many areas of the social sciences don’t appear to carry the same weight for policy designers and key decision-makers as that of economists, engineers, technologists, and researchers from the world of medicine. The cynic in me would suggest that seeking the positive behavioural change essential to tackling climate breakdown requires less production and consumption right across society, which flies in the face of our prevailing economic model.

In the absence of a clear ecological imagination we appear to be locked into a ‘business as usual’ model that does fully appreciate the enormous opportunities and benefits that go with being leaders in positive system change and green innovation. By the time we wake up these opportunities will have passed. Nevertheless, while I always want to see a higher visibility for social science disciplines and the corresponding monies that must go with our genuine concerns about societal, cultural and environmental issues I’m not continually ‘crying into my convoluted books of social theory’ (yes, someone once described my discipline as just that). So rather than a negative ‘whingy’ blog post I’d like this to be one that positively shines a light on a practice I’ve been involved with over the past few years that has greatly benefited my students and I in our cooperative research and learning.

I teach research methods for social science to second year undergraduate students in the School of Political Science and Sociology here at NUI Galway. The overall aim of this course is to enable students appreciate what sociological and political data are, how to critically interpret them and, how to use them more effectively in their own research work. My primary aim, as a university lecturer, must be to enable students to learn and understand the relevant material so that they fully appreciate the real value of such learning and find their own pathways to understanding. I fundamentally believe that students gain a much better understanding of the material if it becomes more practical and ‘real world’, and in this regard the material taught in a large lecture hall setting often fails to adequately connect with students, particularly in the context of material such as research methods and understanding.

There is a pressing need to tie research and teaching together in a very practical manner to create a creative and progressive agenda for undergraduate teaching and learning. Indeed, this has become an important development in how we now think about teaching and learning in Higher Education. These particular concerns led me to regular appeals over the last number years for student participation in practical research projects, the aim of which is to design a project from concept to dissemination a truly collaborative venture between researchers and students. To date, over 20 students have voluntarily become involved over the summer months in a number of practical research projects which have resulted in four separate peer-reviewed publications, in addition to several additional presentations and other such outputs that have greatly benefitted the students and researchers involved. It has largely been a REaL win-win venture (see

My appeal in this instance is, therefore, for much better engagement between researchers and undergraduate students in an environment of mutual respect and benefit, particular in social scientific research. Rather than just complain about the lack of funding maybe we should utilise the enormously rich resource that presents itself to us on a weekly basis. The students I have worked with have been extremely capable, enthusiastic, motivated, hardworking and meticulous in their work and research once given the necessary guidance and oversight. They have added great value to the school’s research environment and have enthused and enriched my own and other staff member’s research agendas in a number of positive ways. The students themselves have gained a number of important practical ‘real world’ research skills and competencies that would not have been possible from a lecture hall setting alone.

The amount of money spend on a research project does not always determine its impact. Guiding and directing student researchers through their formative university years is hugely rewarding and their experiences in these instances bodes well for the future of social scientific research. That said, I’ll never turn down research money in trying to gain a better understanding of the social world and the cultural and ecological consequences of our collective actions; it’s just I’d probably engage a lot more undergraduate student researchers in paid internships to assist in this quest!

With thanks to Mike Hynes, NUIG, for authoring this post. Opinions expressed are the authors own.

About the Research Infrastructures blog

An Academy blog series by researchers discussing the next steps in the delivery of excellent research infrastructures to achieve Ireland’s higher education, research and innovation goals.