2020: A Year in Review

2020: A Year in Review

By: PaCCS Research Champion Dr Tristram Riley-Smith

I cannot open this reflection on PaCCS’s year without acknowledging the hardship that so many have experienced throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. We all know people who have suffered in the face of a pandemic which has killed and seriously debilitated so many and left many others ill and anxious. At the same time, this pandemic has taught us to pay closer attention to the contributions made by those we have not sufficiently valued in the past.

I want, in particular, to acknowledge the challenges faced by our researchers and teachers this year. As I have spoken with colleagues in universities around the country, I have been struck by the resilience, determination, and fortitude they have shown in adapting their working practices to the realities of lockdown and self-isolation. Whether adapting to teaching online, or reshaping research projects to meet the new constraints imposed by public health officials at home and abroad, I have been impressed by the speed with which colleagues have adjusted to a new reality with the help and support of teams working in our Research Councils and University Research Offices.
In the face of these challenges, there are some rays of light and hope. Virtual workshops have opened opportunities for engagement with networks of participants from every time zone, driving progress in outreach and engagement. The threat of covid-19 appears to be driving a transformation in society’s appreciation of science, with a renewed appetite for expertise and evidence in our political corridors of power.
There is, of course, much more to do. Dame Ottoline Leyser, the new CEO of UKRI, has spoken powerfully about the need to break down substantial barriers to create an inclusive knowledge economy, where the delivery of scientific benefits for everybody is achieved through a collective endeavour.
PaCCS is, I am pleased to see, well-aligned to UKRI’s mission “to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good.” (2020-21 Corporate Plan).

This is exemplified by the work currently undertaken in our TNOC programme, Broadening and Deepening Our Understanding of Transnational Organised CrimeFive cross-disciplinary projects are working closely with non-academic stakeholders and our Placement Scheme has seen doctoral students from Manchester and Nottingham Universities work on projects for TISCreport and the Anti-Slavery Commissioner with outputs that are making a difference in the real world.
Meanwhile, our Fellowship Scheme encourages knowledge exchange by providing policy-makers from Government and the Third Sector to meet an extensive network of academic experts. At the beginning of the year, this opportunity was taken up by Sarah Brown of Stop the Traffik and in January we will be hosting the Head of Unit for Serious and Organised Crime Research and Analysis, at the Home Office. Our plan is to build on this Fellowship with a major conference in the autumn of 2021 exploring ways to improve knowledge exchange between academic and non-academic groups focused on organised crime.

Over the past year, our Communications Officer has been reaching back in time to interview Principal Investigators who have worked in our Partnership (and its precursor the Global Uncertainties Programme). Topics have ranged from Cambridge Analaytica and The Globalization of Rendition and Secret Detention to  Internal Displacement and Mental Health in Ukraine. We have explored how urbanisation will place new demands on our cities, how diseases emerge in urban environments, the potential consequences of pharmaceutical release into the environment during a pandemic, and the impact of climate change on human health. While the topics explored with researchers have been diverse, key themes have emerged across these interviews. Our researchers have:

  • expressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations and co-production with local stakeholders and impacted communities as key components for the creation of successful, impactful research endeavours;
  • re-iterated the value of ‘reaching outside their bubbles’ to connect with activists, civil society actors, and journalists, and to understand the needs of the groups or institutions they are researching.
  • emphasised the importance of building relationships with individuals in order to ensure – especially when researching vulnerable groups – that individuals are treated as co-producers of knowledge rather than research subjects;
  • highlighted the need for governments to be able to draw upon a broad range of evidence sources, highlighting the role of diverse forms of evidence in the production of impactful research and good policymaking.

We have been looking forwards as well as back. In 2020, we convened a series of roundtables, which brought together 36 key influencers across government, industry and the third sector to explore big security challenges that would benefit from continued attention from the research community. The findings from these workshops, convened in the weeks before the first lockdown, represent a useful snapshot of the security issues concerning non-academic stakeholders. These findings have been shared with the Research Councils with the goal of informing their strategic thinking, although it is too early to say what impact this will have on future plans.

In 2021, as the world emerges from the worst of pandemic paralysis, we look forward to continuing to bring researchers together with policymakers, industry, and the third sector to foster conversations and share knowledge which can advance our understanding of conflict, crime, and security.