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Three Social Science Institutes Discuss 3 Grand Challenges Over 3 Days


It is said that three is a magic number. It certainly was last week when three colleagues from Leeds Social Sciences Institute (POLIS) travelled to Brisbane to meet with three colleagues from MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit (SPHSU for short), at the University of Glasgow (Drs Anna Pearce, Kathryn Skivington and Jon Olsen)  and our hosts from the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), led by Professors Tim Reddel and Lisa McDaid. The purpose was to participate in a three-day workshop (20-22 February) consolidating and building on a series of online meetings sharing research into social disadvantage and inequality, and in using co-production methods in view of designing future research collaborations and grant submissions.  

We opened on day one with a reflection of the previous three online workshops.  We looked back at the first workshop from February 2022 on Governance and policy co-design /co-production, the second in September 2022 on Cross-country comparisons to evaluate or anticipate policy impacts on inequalities and the final workshop from November 2022 on Navigating systems approaches to tackling inequalities: policy, practice and place.  We gently kick-started the more intensive workshop to come with an open discussion around the topics of those initial workshops.  During the second session of the day each institution introduced its ‘grand challenge’ to get our brains mulling them over.  

SPHSU identified the challenges posed by health inequalities, LSSI identified the ‘wicked problems’ associated with equitable and sustainable transport in the context of climate change, and ISSR proposed research on the idea of developing a wellbeing economy and its relationship to democratic renewal as a response to the multi-crises. 

On the morning of day two we switched lenses to remind ourselves of the purpose of our research – societal impact.  The sessions focused on “what we mean by research impact” and how we can build international partnerships to collaborate towards achieving impactful research.  Dr Kate Pangbourne and Dr Cristina Stefan from the LSSI team provided details on impact case studies based on their respective research agendas at Leeds to inform conversations on what works and does not work in building collaborations towards impact.  In addition to these presentations, several participants from the previous online workshops were able to contribute from afar, with pre-prepared videos playing to the room, watching online and adding comments to the shared Padlet for the workshop.  

In the afternoon the intensive work started, and extended across day three: we discussed and developed new research agendas for the three identified ‘grand challenges’, having been joined by additional UQ colleagues from the Schools of Political Science and International Studies and Earth and Environmental Sciences.  Thus, whilst everyone there was some type of social scientist, we represented a wide variety of academic and policy backgrounds with diverse methodological approaches.

Our UQ hosts facilitated round table discussions in which we were all encouraged to move out of our comfort zones and consider the way other fields frame research problems, whilst being tasked each time to progress in identifying research questions and methodologies as well as societal impact and co-production.  This stimulated wide ranging discussion and innovative lines of inquiry, engaging with a plurality of methods, which combined quantitative and qualitative approaches to defining the parameters for each of the three assigned “wicked problems”.   

What do we mean by research impact?

There was a genuine commitment to impactful interdisciplinary research and a determination to advance the collaborative purpose with concrete proposals. We thoroughly covered the essential elements for each of the three grand challenges, including the following key questions: “What is the wicked problem?”, “How to address the problem?”, “What is the nature of the problem?”, “Partners required to address the problem”, and, “What might the societal impact be?”. 

We are looking forward to the follow-up work exploring cross-country comparisons towards Australia-UK co-production of research and impact collaborations around the three grand challenges: 1) health inequalities and solutions; 2) transport that is fit for a Net Zero future whilst being equitable and fair;  and, 3) institutional responsibilities and global power geometries to enable deliberative democracy in a post-pandemic and post-crises context. LSSI and POLIS thanked ISSR for their wonderful welcome and hospitality, and we look forward to welcoming them to Leeds in the future.