Guest post by Becki Cox of the Active Travel Postgraduate Network and University of Glasgow

Doing research when it matters: objectivity and responsibility within real-world research problems.

A conversation with Professor Ian Walker

We were joined at our final Active Travel Postgrad Network session of the year by guest speaker Professor Ian Walker (formerly of Bath University, now at University of Surrey). Ian is an environmental psychologist, focussing on various behavioural elements in the built environment, including road safety and travel choices. In his “spare” time however, Ian is an ultra-endurance cyclist and current world record holder for cycling a very long way between Europe’s northern and southernmost points at an unimageable speed.

The theme of the session was “doing research when it matters”. A foray into the myriad of ethical and practical issues that can arise when you’re undertaking research in a real-world area that you care passionately about or at least an area where you feel change is imperative. Ian sums this up in three questions:

What do I do as a researcher when I see a government announcement I don’t agree with?

How should I, as a researcher, handle idiots on twitter?

Will it erode my credibility as a researcher if I don’t bite my tongue?

Reflexivity – the deliberate act of examining our own beliefs and biases as researchers, especially within qualitative research – is crucially important in terms of producing high quality, trustworthy research. Encapsulated within this is the concept of objectivity, which we tend to understand as the need to manage ourselves as “tools” in our research so that we as individuals don’t affect the outcomes. Of course, in reality, we are embedded in our research and to imagine that we won’t affect it at all is naïve. But the process of recognising where we have a strong, possibly emotive, attachment to a particular outcome is enshrined in the notion of ‘good practice’.

Which is all well and good if the research topic is non-contentious and/or widely accepted and welcomed in wider practitioner and political circles. But, asks Ian, what happens when merely providing new research information isn’t sufficient to overcome an established status quo?

If new information alone isn’t enough, maybe researchers need to be activists?

Do researchers also need to activate their own research?

Indeed, the research “impact agenda” is effectively official policy that implies that researchers should try to change the world. For those of us researching (and indeed working in) active travel, against a backdrop of climate crisis, public health and environmental meltdown, this is an increasingly pressing imperative. The task is huge, the timescale is tiny.

But the difference between active travel research and, say, tobacco or gambling research, is that neither the need nor the mechanisms for change within the former are broadly accepted politically or socially. No one (broadly speaking) is going to challenge research that says smoking is bad for us. Researchers in this field can start out with an unashamedly moral position: “we know this is bad and we know how to bring about change”. Conversely, we (broadly) don’t want to accept that meeting climate change and public health targets anywhere near within the timescales required will require huge systemic and personal change. Broadly, therefore, the messages coming out of active travel research are falling either on deaf ears or at least on ears with fingers jammed firmly into them whilst the proprietor looks the other way.

This puts us, as active travel researchers (and practitioners), in a potentially tricky place where it is perhaps not enough to just produce data and hope it is acted upon. Instead, we are required to defend the need for the data, carefully explain the implications and actively campaign for the change required. All within the context of significant political and social pushback. As Ian also notes, reflexivity within the context of active travel research will of course be weaponised. We get held to a different standard. (An anecdote that Ian added here by way of example is that most juries in the UK will contain a noticeable proportion of individuals with a recent driving offence, even if the offence being tried relates to driving – astoundingly, this isn’t seen as a conflict of interest.)

A key point to note here is that there is privilege inherent in being able to choose whether to engage with activism or not. Researching inclusive street design when you as a researcher rely on accessible infrastructure for your everyday mobility means that you are inherently an “activist” of sorts, whether you want to identify with that label or not. In this case, lived experience can be seen as useful insight, rather than a conflict of interest. This all points to an important question of how we frame the idea of “data” to external audiences, both politically and socially.

A final point Ian raised, which is perhaps a touch uncomfortable to contemplate for those of us involved in research, is the extent to which providing data might actually become counterproductive. To what extent are we playing into the hands of people not wanting change by providing more and more data? Are researchers inadvertently part of the machine that resists change? We’ll arguably never have “enough” data to make change… Are we inadvertently shooting ourselves in the foot by providing more data when we already know the answer? Do we in active travel have a duty to be a bit less “objective” and a bit more directive?

Our first imperative perhaps is to be willing to engage with these questions; to extend our reflexive practice beyond the realms of merely “am I being objective” to probe a deeper question of our potential responsibility towards the platform we hold as researchers within the realm of active travel.

With thanks to Professor Ian Walker for speaking at our final Active Travel Postgrad Network event this year. The content of this blogpost is based on Ian’s talk and resulting discussions with network members however questions and quotes have been paraphrased by the blog author. The content remains the intellectual property of the Active Travel Postgrad Network.

Our monthly meetings will restart in the autumn semester. In the meantime, you can join our JISC mailing list by clicking here: https://tinyurl.com/JISCmailATAPGN and follow us on twitter @activetravelPGN.

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