On SAGE Insight: Materializing links between air pollution and health

Article title: Materializing links between air pollution and health: How societal impact was achieved in an interdisciplinary project

From Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine

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There are increasingly explicit imperatives to achieve societal, particularly policy, impact from academic research. Funders such as the European Commission and UK research councils require applicants to detail how they will develop ‘pathways to impact’, and UK university research rankings (which determine funding allocations) include a component on the impact research has achieved outside academia.

Drawing on insights from Actor–Network Theory, this paper explores the research–policy interface within an interdisciplinary research project on the relationships between air pollution and human health. The Weather, Health and Air Pollution (WHAP) project provides a useful case study for exploring the processes of science–policy translation and the generation of impactful knowledge. An interdisciplinary project, WHAP included senior investigators and research staff in fields such as air pollution and health, networks of policymakers and researchers are inevitably entangled, and we found that processes of engagement operated to delineate science from policy and human health. Health policy impact was important to the researchers for moral as well as pragmatic reasons but it was a goal that was seen as potentially in. Health was initially black-boxed and under-explicated, used as a signifier in itself for societal impact.

Researching science in action is challenging. Much work done by researchers is individual, private and largely invisible to observers. Tasks such as computer coding, running computer model simulations, drafting papers or cleaning data were, for the most part, done alone at a desk, and there are a limited number of times an ethnographer can ask for the work to be explicated without disrupting progress and risking severe irritation.  In ths study, researchers’ engagements with scientific actors and those supposedly ‘outside’ of science were empirical opportunities for exploring how practices of science can be opened-up and questioned. The processes involved in generating scientific impact are, then, potentially productive sites for critically engaging with environmental health research and policy more broadly.

Abstract

Societal impact is an increasingly important imperative of academic funding. However, there is little research to date documenting how impact is accomplished in practice. Drawing on insights from Actor–Network Theory, we explore the research–policy interface within an interdisciplinary research project on the relationships between air pollution tension with that of doing science. In fields such as air pollution and health, networks of policymakers and researchers are inevitably entangled, and we found that processes of engagement operated to delineate science from policyand human health. Health policy impact was important to the researchers for moral as well as pragmatic reasons but it was a goal that was seen as potentially in. Health was initially black-boxed and under-explicated, used as a signifier in itself for societal impact. By mobilising networks of policy actors, brought together in workshops to rank the importance of policy scenarios for the research team, the connections between air pollution and health were materialised and made actionable. This was achieved by framing existing data sets, emission technologies, policy expertise, pollutant species and human health in particular ways and, in doing so, excluding others. The process of linking air pollution and health research to achieve societal impact not only influenced how these phenomena were known but, critically, enabled and constrained potential policy responses. Tracing these research arrangements made the material discursive processes of ‘impact’ visible and analysable as objects of social science scholarship, and therefore generated a productive site for critically engaging with processes of environment and health science and policy.

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Article details

Materializing links between air pollution and health: How societal impact was achieved in an interdisciplinary project
Emma Garnett, Judith Green, Zaid Chalabi and Paul WilkinsonFirst Published October 12, 2018 Research Article
DOI: 10.1177/1363459318804590
Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine


     
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