Supporting the academic spring

In NPC’s monitoring and evaluation team we spend the bulk of our time advising charities on how they can better monitor and evaluate the services they provide. Invariably our advice includes them getting familiar with relevant academic research. All too often we find that charities are not aware of relevant research. The risk is they can waste goodwill, time, effort, and money, by running developing services that may not be so effective as alternatives.

But our advice can be very difficult to follow not least because evidence generated by academics can be inconsistent and inconclusive. And this assumes that the charity can actually make sense of the research. Most academics are primarily thinking of their peers as the audience when writing up research, not the general public. I am accustomed to ploughing through academic articles and books to find the relevant information, but it is not easy.

Precious information that could help charities improve their services lies behind a very high and very thick wall.

But the main problem starts before you have an article in front of you. The challenge is getting hold of what is relevant in the first place. We are currently involved in a project where our academic partner (the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, based at Birkbeck, University of London) are having to review hundreds, if not thousands, of summaries of articles to identify the relatively few that are relevant to the project. This is time consuming and hard enough for them, and they are experts. A charity without that expertise and without access to the publishers’ databases that contain those articles faces an enormous struggle to get hold of, let alone use, the relevant research. So precious information that could help them improve their services and the lives of those they serve lies behind a very high and very thick wall.

So I was delighted to read that the government has drafted Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, to help make all taxpayer-funded academic research in Britain available online to anyone who wants to read or use it – another step in the push for open data that’s been dubbed the ‘academic spring‘. There are already various initiatives that help make academic research more readily available, such as the Social Care Institute of Excellence’s website, the Campbell and Cochrane collaborations for the criminal justice and healthcare sectors, and the library run by National Children’s Bureau. The British Library has also been involved in trying to make research more accessible to charities. But more support is needed.

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking at two conferences (one in Manchester and one in London) on measuring and evaluating outcomes in the charity sector. I will cover what has happened in the past, where the sector is now, and where the sector is headed. Much improved access to evidence is part of that future, and we will work to help charities get there sooner rather than later. I do not (yet?) have a particular recommendation or proposal for charities. But in the meantime I encourage you to add your support to the Academic Spring however you can.