Along with many other independent researchers, the implications of the COVID pandemic began to surface in real terms in early March. What had looked like a happy coincidence of Easter, school holidays, the completion of some substantial projects and the end of the financial year quickly turned into the realisation that the end of March would in fact be a cut off point for much research activity.
When the schools closed, and the lockdown restrictions began, it was clear that any existing projects and commissions would need to look very different for the foreseeable future, that the priorities of commissioners had changed dramatically and that, similarly to other industries, social research would be impacted in many predictable and unpredictable ways.
“All my speaking engagements, and all but two of my teaching engagements, have been cancelled. Those two teaching engagements are being reorganised to run online, which is involving a lot of unpaid preparation, though I hope when they're done I can offer them to other institutions. My research projects are being delayed, I'm not yet sure for how long - I don't think the commissioners know, either, just yet. My income is plummeting.” Helen Kara (We Research It Ltd.)
When contacting potential contributors to the SRA Blog, on more than one occasion I found researchers stranded abroad on international research projects. Our Independent Research editor, Helen Kara, wrote on her own blog how she voluntarily self-isolated for 14 days after returning home from overseas.
On the 17th March, the Market Research Society issued guidelines that all face-to-face field work should stop. This is a substantial UK workforce and many interviewers and field researchers are in ‘precarious’ employment. Our blog team member Hannah Ormston (Carnegie UK) is currently working on a new post to capture the experiences of a doorstep researcher.
Moving Research Work Online
Of course, much social research can be done remotely, online and using secondary data. Some organisations will feel initially resilient, in that they have had the capabilities for remote working for some time.
“We’ve always had the technology and data securities set-up to enable remote working, although we are now taking advantage of more creative ways to keep up “office chatter”! We’re able to deliver the same level of service to all of our clients, and can rely on remote qualitative research techniques in some situations to replace more traditional face-to-face methods.” Bethan Blakely, Director, Honeycomb Analytics
Helping Clients Understand Impact
In the short term, social and market researchers can help their clients understand how they are being immediately impacted by COVID-19 and how to respond.
“Some sectors are obviously feeling the effects more than others, and we’re doing everything we can to work with our clients in these sectors to understand what steps they should take, and how this might affect their customers.” Bethan Blakely, Director, Honeycomb Analytics
"We have also been asked to conduct telephone surveys with businesses for local authorities looking to gauge how COVID-19 is impacting firms.” Richard Bryan, Director, QA Research
Working with uncertainty
However, while researchers might adapt easily in the short term, it is the priorities and budget of clients in the longer term that agencies and other research providers will be concerned about.
“Our main challenge is the wide range of projects that have been postponed – not just those with methods that involve people contact but others (even online surveys) as clients take stock of their own circumstances before continuing with investments in new projects. But we remain resilient and positive as we are all adapting quickly to the new circumstances and we hope that clients will continue to undertake at least a certain number of studies, as methods such as online surveys and telephone surveys can continue.” Richard Bryan, Director, QA Research
Cuts to Research Budgets – A False Economy?
My only reference point is the financial crisis of 2008 when research budgets were cut by many organisations. This was followed in 2010 by a change of government.
Austerity affected all aspects of the public sector, including social research. Perhaps some research activity became more efficient and focused: The National Indicator Set for local authorities was dismantled and new frameworks and measures gained traction (e.g. wellbeing). But we should be wary of false economies. Sophie Payne-Gifford (our Qualitative Editor) has written for the blog about how the cancellation of the Infant Feeding Survey (and the absence of a high quality alternative) has led to holes in public health data about breastfeeding and associated health inequalities.
The Role of Social Research
Social research continues to provide vital intelligence about health, behaviour and society through the current crisis (e.g. see Ipsos Mori’s digest of opinion research). The need remains for robust data and messages to inform decision making, allay fears and combat fake news. Sophie’s ‘day job’ is researching sustainable food systems and, for the new bakers amongst us, she sent us some insights into apparent panic buying and food shortages:
“So where is all the flour? The effect of millions of extra purchases is particularly noticeable in the baking aisle. The National Association of British and Irish Millers issued a statement on April 1st, explaining that although the UK is self-sufficient in wheat, only 4% is usually sold through retail outlets; the rest is sold in 16kg or 25kg bags to the food processing sector (e.g. for bread and biscuits). The bottleneck in returning flour to the retail sector is that most flour mills are not set up to package flour in 1kg bags, although they are trying. But 27 million households wanting to do more baking at the same time is a challenge!” Sophie Payne Gifford (Senior Research Fellow, University of Hertfordshire)
Collating, interpreting and communicating intelligence is the skill of social research. Just as there is new respect for public health expertise, other social research can also contribute to the public’s understanding of and response to the crisis.
New and Urgent Research Questions
Now is not the time to stop collecting data about society and to stop consulting with citizens, but to refocus and ensure that good evidence is available to decision makers and that advocacy for the under-represented continues and is not pushed to one side in the long term. This is unlikely to be the last global crisis that today’s young people will experience and we can begin to set the groundwork now for how we will work and what we will research in the future.
Anna Cordes (Which? and MRes student in Social Research at Birkbeck College) is preparing a collaborative piece for the blog on new or urgent research questions for social researchers: perceptions of key workers, treatment of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ keyworkers (e.g., access to PPE), the role and value of caring professions and perceptions and take up of government advice and guidance by different types of households.
Balancing the Need for Intelligence with Best Practice in Social Research
While the need for good data from social research continues, there are of course ethical, practical, methodological and quality issues to consider at the present time. GSR Heads of Profession have developed guidelines for continuing and initiating research while maintaining best practice, in order to ensure that research remains respectful, timely and good quality.
"GSR Heads of Profession have been (virtually) meeting every week, since the COVID-19 emergency measures began. Different government departments and agencies are aware of the need to balance collecting fit-for-purpose evidence to inform policy and operations with the need not to burden businesses and citizens unduly when they are facing unprecedented challenges." Beverely Bishop, Chief Social Researcher, Health and Safety Executive
The Social Research Workforce
Inequality is the subject of study for many researchers but may feel like a sudden reality for some. Across all sectors, the wide variety of ‘employees’ and ‘employers’ has become apparent. While permanent employees should be largely protected in the short term, and long term primary sole traders can also access support, many of the newly self-employed, precariously employed, variously employed and smallest limited companies will find themselves falling between the gaps.
SRA have provided a guidance page for their Independent members and will offer free places on their pilot online training courses to these members. Other professional membership groups also have information for the self-employed and small businesses, and continue to advocate on their behalf (e.g. Federation of Small Businesses).
Adapt to thrive (not just survive)
Like me, many will find themselves evaluating projects that have suddenly stopped or which are rapidly changing. It is early days for many projects (given the uncertainty over the length of restrictions). However, the Charities Evaluation Service at NCVO have provided some useful guidance on evaluation in a crisis
, and are also providing a webinar on the same topic.
This is also a time to both invest in my own digital skills and consider how digital engagement might become a more important component of future evaluations (as a tool to use, and as something that will need to be evaluated). There are no- or low-cost online courses available from the Audience Agency (Core Digital Skills) and ICA (Virtual Facilitation). On the blog you will find Orla Cronin and Charlotte Dean giving their tips for facilitating meetings online and Anna Cordes on managing large online research communities.
The LSE Impact blog have a round up of all their articles on digital tools for research. There is GSR guidance on researching the online world, including a list of tools for social media analysis.
Accelerated Developments in Research Methods
This month we were due to host Patten Smith (Ipsos Mori, and our Quantitative Editor) on the blog, writing about advances in survey research. Patten will now be writing for us about how those advances are accelerating as a result of the crisis.
Earlier this year, SRA North and SRA Scotland had been planning a virtual conference as a new way of connecting the widely dispersed UK social research community. The conference in May now has a new impetus and purpose, and we will post more details here as they become available.
This may be a time to think about how creative research methods can be adapted for online research work, and if these are one route to better quality research interactions online. Lucy Ellis (Youth Sports Trust) wrote for the blog about taking part in SRA’s creative research methods training and sent this message about her current work with young people.
“Not only are we all being challenged to think creatively about our new work spaces, physical activity schedules and social lives, as a large amount of our research is conducted with young people through schools, the current situation is challenging us to think creatively about how to ensure we continue to engage with our key stakeholders. Situations like this are testing, but I hope that we will emerge the other side stronger and better researchers, for whom innovative thinking is embedded into our everyday work.” Lucy Ellis (Youth Sports Trust)
Universities are of course major providers of training in research methods and providers of social research. New funding has been released or diverted to tackle the global crisis, REF 21 has been postponed, and university lecturers and students have seen a mass movement to online teaching.
Echoing Lucy’s hope for better research to arise from the crisis, Hannah Ormston appreciates the loosening of power dynamics at her institution and looks forward to deeper collaborative research approaches in the future.
“As an MSc student nearing the end of my course, over the past month the approach taken by the university where I study has been kind, compassionate and considerate; institutional power dynamics have softened and relational approaches are being embraced. There is a lot of noise out there at the moment, but as we all learn to adapt to these challenging circumstances and start to think about what our future could look like, I hope that as a community we might reflect on how some of the new methodologies created during this experience could form the framework of a more relational approach.” Hannah Ormston, (MSc Social Research student, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh)
Working through Distractions, Anxiety and Bereavement
Sensitivity in relationships with colleagues and with research participants will be needed. Many will have been working through intense anxiety and distractions, with worries about income, employment, housing, family, health and home schooling.
“Most worryingly, my parents (aged 79 and 80) appear to have the coronavirus …. it's really upsetting that I can't go and care for them. I need to concentrate on reinventing my business to work entirely online while doing what I can for my current clients, but the emotional impact of my parents' illness makes that very hard. I've stopped watching the news because that just makes it worse. I'm clinging to the statistics - I know it's most likely that they will survive – yet I'm worried sick because they are so unwell right now". Anonymous
More than ever, it is a kindness to consider what another person (be they a client, colleague or participant) may be going through when we formulate our communications and questions. I have been reminded of my time working for a children’s charity where we took part in bereavement debriefing in order to be better informed about what our research participants (the families receiving support and those staff who were supporting them) might be experiencing. We have previously hosted Emilie Smeaton on the blog writing about trauma informed research. Perhaps research plans and protocols can accommodate time for connecting and reflecting with participants and colleagues where needed.
Please get in touch
At the time of writing, we are three weeks into the lockdown, with many uncertainties about how COVID-19 will progress in the UK, how long restrictions will last and what the future holds for social research. I look forward to hearing more from the social research community on the blog. Please do get in touch to propose a post about your sector, policy area, workplace or research practice during the crisis.