Science With a Side of Politics

Pamela Buchan is a final year ESRC funded PhD student investigating marine citizenship at Exeter University, via the SW Doctoral Training Partnership. She was elected a Plymouth City Councillor in 2018

As PhD researchers, whatever the topic that most floats our boat, most of us want to create impact and make change. There are lots of different ways to do that in life and research can be a very effective one, feeding into policy and education, and creating direct impact through participatory research.

It was not exactly by design that I became a city councillor, though my career and moral trajectory clearly led me that way, but it nonetheless happened in 2018, slap bang in the middle of my second PhD year. This blog could be a look at how that happened, or it could be about how I manage my time (hint: I went part time for my final year). Instead it will be about why PhD researchers should get engaged in politics.

  1. It will satisfy your cravings for novelty and challenge

Maybe this is only interdisciplinary researchers, but I love a good complex issue that needs lots of thought and contains lots of ideas to chew on. Being a councillor is a bit like being an interdisciplinary researcher – both look to tackle complex issues; both draw on a range of skills; both are more impact oriented. As a councillor I work on loads of different issues and it’s very satisfying to put my analytical and critical skills to the test in creating tangible change for people.

  1. It won’t satisfy your craving for impact, but it will help

Being a councillor is like being a PhD researcher in that they can both be incredibly frustrating. Things don’t always work. Results aren’t always what you wanted or expected. Hurdles must be surmounted and compromises have to be made to reach the end goal. But that goal will be reached and something real will come out of your labours.

  1. It will give meaning to your research

It’s easy to get wrapped up in academia and theoretical thinking. Being in politics keeps you grounded and provides insight into how your research, whatever the field, fits into the grander scheme of things. It will remind you why you are doing it and what you want to achieve.

  1. It will open doors

This has been the most surprising for me. My tiny bit of specialism has aligned remarkably with things happening where I live and being a councillor means invitations to meetings, opportunities to network, access to other politicians, and insight into policy that a PhD student wouldn’t typically have. I’ve twice mentioned my PhD research in full council meetings, and I get to apply my skills and knowledge to the climate emergency response.

  1. It’s your responsibility

We are often funded by the public. Our goal is to improve society or the environment, or to make things easier or fairer. It’s a privilege to be a researcher and we owe it to others to make the most of the skills and knowledge we have developed, through impact. Getting involved in politics, be it as a campaigner, elected member, or through policy making, should be at the heart of what we do.


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Why do research?

Catherine Cartwright is a visual artist and in last autumn became a Geography PhD student. In this blog she shares her initial experiences and gently encourages you to consider whether formal Research (with a big ‘R’) could take a bigger part in your life and practice. Catherine will be covering the similarities between artist practice and research practice, the ‘elephant in the room’ that is funding, how she developed her research question and its potential benefits.

Research practice and artist practice are practically family

Research practice and artist practice are practically family. There are certain crossovers and shared characteristics such as, similar thinking processes, research determining the methodologies and, of course, practice-led PhDs where the artwork embodies the thesis.

There is a creativity in the thinking processes of research which may not be at first apparent. The thinking processes involved in making art have been likened to those involved in research, ‘higher level thinking demands connections, associations, linkages of conscious and unconscious elements, memory and emotion, past, present and future merging in the processes of making meaning’. (Sullivan 2009 cited in Kara 2015).

When making, I want to ensure that the materials and processes I use enhance the message of the work. Kara says that when choosing or creating your research method(s), that they must ‘flow from your research question, not the other way around’ (Kara 2015). Interestingly this implies there could be as many variations of methodologies as there are research questions!

And lastly, the artwork as thesis, and the reassurance that artists as researchers are not an anomaly, ‘there is increasing acceptance of the idea that artists can conduct research in the process of producing art, and that the resulting artwork can be a valid research output in itself by embodying and communicating the knowledge produced in its creation’ (Biggs 2009, cited in Kara 2015)

The ‘Elephant in the Room’ – funding

Let’s not leave the elephant in the room until the end. How can I afford to do this?

I have been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP). They give me a ‘stipend’ (in other words, a wage) and pay the fees. The SWWDTP is one of several in the country. These partnerships consist of a network of regional universities. Applicants to the programme apply for interdisciplinary research that will make the very best use of the resources at two universities in the consortium. The programme aims to fund a new generation of outward-looking and public-engaging researchers. The antithesis of the ivory tower. I can’t tell you what to apply for, but I would like to use this chance to introduce my research.

Research as ‘me’ search

Research as ‘me’search acknowledges that we are often centrally located in our research, that our motivations are personal, even if the research itself is situated within a wider socio-political landscape.

One of the hardest things can be knowing what question you want to ask. My area came from my current focus, or so I thought. Looking back over the past 20 years of working variously as project coordinator, printmaking tutor and practising artist, I can see that both my passions as well as the current challenging times have come together to motivate my current research.

Let me briefly outline my research.

As an artist I want to be relevant to my communities and this has resulted in a career of outreach art projects and socio-political artwork. I am interested in ethics and in process. I want to know more about how artists work with people, and specifically, how we respond to, and work best with, people affected by trauma.

In my research I will be co-producing portraiture with women impacted by abuse and examining their experiences of the process. Traditionally the ‘sitter’ in portraiture has been passive – passive to the artist and to the viewer. How can I alter this so that the ‘sitter’ is assertive, both in the making and viewing? I am partnering with Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services and together we will be ensuring that this is a safe process, where our duty of care is paramount. Through my research I plan to outline what ‘trauma-informed’ working practice looks like and I will be keen to see where my research can benefit the participatory visual arts sector.

There is a shift happening in public health and frontline services to become ‘trauma-informed’. This means understanding people’s behaviour as a result of trauma they have suffered. I have come across little dialogue about trauma-informed practice in the visual arts sector specifically (it doesn’t mean it’s not happening at a local or regional level, but if it is, it’s not reverberating outwards) so I want to initiate more discussion about our duty of care to people affected by trauma and what best practice looks like. The ArtWorks Alliance blog last year from the Bartol Foundation raises some interesting thoughts.

Anticipating the benefits 

Doubtless this intense period of reading, thinking, writing and making will have many benefits. I can’t pinpoint them yet but the experience of becoming an expert in my own field of research will, I hope, lead to alternative employment opportunities. Doing a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean launching into academia, lecturing and the like, it might be starting a new business, or continuing with a more meaningful artist practice.

Wider benefits to my sector will include building a conversation about what it means to work in a trauma-informed way, to talk about the ethics of process, and to find out what’s already happening in best practice. All this leads to a further professionalisation of the sector underpinning our validity in wider society. In turn this brings funding for the opportunity for further participatory arts practice, which ultimately benefits the people in our communities.

Written by: Catherine Cartwright

Website: Catherine Cartwright

Twitter: @cathcartwright 

Credit: Artworks Alliance

AHRC funding via Doctoral Training Partnerships

Kara, H. (2015) Creative Research methods in the Social Sciences. A Practical Guide, Bristol, Policy Press.