Dear government agencies: why I can’t do your research free

The answer is because my time has dollars attached to it. So much as your topic might be fascinating, I am not a charity and nor is my university. That you say you can’t pay for important social work related research is a huge concern for social work in New Zealand.

A question commonly asked question in social work circles is “but where is the local research?” Students will sometimes ask “why are you getting us to read all this UK and US research?” “Why don’t we cite local studies?” And government (and other agencies) say “why don’t you research this for us?”

Well it’s complicated. First, there is a very small pool of researchers in New Zealand social work. In part this is because we have opted to base much of our social work education in non research-intensive institutions. And as a consequence social work academics who are active researchers have to teach too much. There’s maths behind that assertion but I won’t bore you.
Second, this small pool can only research so many topics. Often when practitioners join the academy they want to research in their field of practice. And they will often have to focus quite narrowly on this area to get funds.

Third, the pool of funding for social work research, and indeed social science research in general is very small. And with a conservative government the focus is on particular issues. Outside of some very hard to get “blue skies” researcher funding the money that is available is often targeted to national research goals. So if your research questions fit you can apply. But it is a very competitive environment. As far as I know only one social work team has scooped a major grant in recent history.

Fourth in the reasons we can’t do freebies, academic must also publish or perish. We have PBRF which means we get individually ranked on our outputs, which include books, journal articles, chapters in books along with activities that are a measure of peer esteem and so forth. So quite a high proportion of the ‘research’ time is spent writing.

So bearing in mind these four points the research environment is quite tough in social work. When you work for a university you are expected to devote say 20-40% of your time to research depending on your agreement with your boss. This is generally eroded by excessive teaching and marking, seemingly unstoppable administrative demands and often absurd compliance activities. So many of us do small research projects in our research time and write these up.
As you climb the academic ladder there is an expectation that you will earn money for research to bring much needed external funding into the university. So when people in government agencies say “we’d really like this research done but we have no money” please understand why we walk away shaking our heads. We do not have time to spare. If we get funded research we can use this money to pay for teaching assistance. And we can pay for travel, transcribing, survey costs and so forth. These activities aren’t automatically paid for. We have to compete for every dollar.

For myself most of the things I want to research right now – the media and social problems, the professionalisation of social work, the impact of registration , the role and effectiveness of external supervision – don’t attract funding, though they are important to the profession. And I won’t stop researching. And I will consider collaborative projects with NGOs. But I probably can’t do your research project unless you pay me.
Liz Beddoe


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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3 Responses to Dear government agencies: why I can’t do your research free

  1. Emily Keddell says:

    Very true Liz! Or the other response I have had from government departments is not only that they don’t want to pay for it, they don’t want to risk any adverse media coverage so they won’t even let you have access to do it …but say ‘but if anyone else lets you in to do it we would be SO interested in the results so please share a copy with us!!!’

    • socialworknz says:

      It’s depressing, especially when in a Faculty of Education and see everyday how much funding there is for educational research. It seems that this govt isn’t interested in independent quality research on social work and social services.

    • socialworknz says:

      Also meant to say, thanks for reading the blog. if you’re interested in writing a guest post about your research let me know.

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