New reports set out plan for future of practice research

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An independent advisory body dedicated to practice research should be funded and supported to formally recognise the importance of the field, enabling its growth and enhancing the understanding of its benefits to society, according to two new reports.

Photograph of disassembled toaster as part of The Toaster Project

Photograph of toaster as part of The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites. © Daniel Alexander 2009.

The two reports, What is practice research? and How can practice research be shared?, have been hailed as a “seminal contribution” for the way they explore the fundamentals of practice research to provide insights and recommendations over the future of the field. 

The reports published on the British Library Shared Research Repository demonstrate that practice research enriches not just higher education but learning and knowledge creation and sharing in other settings across a wide range of areas from medicine and engineering to art and music. 

And the reports say that there is now an opportunity to formally recognise practice research and put into place frameworks that will help galvanise understanding of the field, leading in turn to widespread benefits for society.

Practice research is when researchers articulate practice in the creation of research outputs. This applies to every field of study – for example practice research is undertaken in the worlds of science, medicine and engineering and in the arts and humanities.  

Writing in in the executive summary, authors James Bulley and Özden Şahin, a Research Associate and Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London say: “Practice research has a history stretching as far back as the earliest human experiments: practice is a method of discovering and sharing new findings about the world that surrounds us.” 

“In recent years, scholarly communication has undergone a series of changes that have led to a broadening of the landscape of academic research, due in part to the emergence of practice research in the academy.” 

“The formulation and dissemination of practice research affords an important opportunity for researchers in England, offering a research field that conveys ways of knowing from practice, operating within, across and beyond disciplines in manners that go far beyond traditional research types.” 

“In practice research, forms of intuitive, embodied, tacit, imaginative, affective and sensory ways of knowing can be conveyed, and its sharing presents an opportunity for the modernising and revitalising of research communication, uncovering novel dissemination routes in the digital era.”

The reports set out recommendations for research councils, policymakers and other stakeholders to support a shared understanding of practice research and the contribution it makes. 

The reports are based on 62 face-to-face interviews and written questionnaire and survey responses from a diverse range of practice researchers, research support professionals and policymakers. The reports also include an in-depth literature review, and draw on existing international standards for the sharing of research.

The reports summarise the field of practice research, illustrating its transdisciplinary characteristics, acting as catalyst for the creation of research in this area, for everyone from post-graduate researchers, early career researchers, established researchers, research support professionals, funders and policymakers.

The reports conclude that practice research expands the scope and nature of research both inside and outside academia.

The reports detail a series of considerations for future developments surrounding practice research, including the need for funding and support for a professional body to establish standards and guidelines for practice research, and the founding of an Open Library for Practice Research.

The reports were commissioned by PRAG-UK, a group formed to support the practice research community and were supported and funded by Research England (UKRI), Goldsmiths, University of London, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of the Arts London, University of Coventry, and The Culture Capital Exchange (TCCE). 

Writing in the foreword to What is practice research?, Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England says: “Practice research is a new way of thinking about and engaging in research and so needs new structures and systems to maximise its impact within and outside the academy.”

He adds: “These reports are a seminal contribution that draws together current thinking relating to practice research in all its diversity. They provide consistent language to talk about practice research across multiple disciplinary contexts and clarify the challenges that need to be addressed to ensure the full potential of practice research. Notably, the reports span and provide linkages between the theoretical and practical.” 

“This range is essential. If there are to be better tools for hosting and communicating practice research, they need to align with the ways practice researchers conceptualise their work.”

Approaches to practice research

The reports highlight a number of practice research projects to help illustrate what practice research is. 

The examples include The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites

Thwaites is a practice researcher who makes objects to explore the psychological and social impacts of technology, often weaving research and making processes into a story told through live performance-lectures, published books, moving image and in exhibitions.

The Toaster Project saw Thwaites set out to build from scratch a toaster – including sourcing the raw materials required to construct a toaster. 

Through exhibition and documentation of this practice alongside an accompanying book that lends a detailed research narrative, Thwaites describes the complex multitude of methods he employed in practice, and the wide-reaching insight that this lent on consumerism and economies of scale in everyday life. 

Another example is given in the work of Roger Kneebone, who is Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College. The report recognises the work of Professor Kneebone in spreading progressive, collaborative and transdisciplinary approaches to practice research. 

There are numerous examples of this in Kneebone’s publications, including a 2012 co-authored article with Professor Abigail Woods entitled “Bringing surgical history to life” published in the British Medical Journal where the authors provide mixed-media documentation as proxy for practice conjoined with a research narrative that conveys their practice research inquiry: whether through simulation in practice it is possible to capture “not just past surgical techniques, but tacit and embodied behaviours, and social ways of working that elude capture by other means".