Skip to Content
Back to resources
Published by

Professor John McKendrick, Co-Director, Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit

14 September 2020, 8:08 UTC Share

Why should anyone listen to us?

UPEN’s mission is admirable, but it also has the potential to be truly transformative.

Who is ‘us’

I want to think about the UPEN network, my department/institution and my research unit. There is no shortage of talent in each. There is also no shortage of broader purpose, or commitment to better serve the “common good”, as we like to say at Glasgow Caledonian University. What’s not to like about policymakers making better use of robust science to make decisions that lead to resources being used more efficiently? What’s not to like about establishing mechanisms that increase understanding, respect and knowledge exchange between policymakers and researchers? So far, so good. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge that making the system work better in parts (a healthcare improvement here, an energy solution there), with one disconnected to the other, limits the potential of our impact.


A cursory glance through UPEN’s membership and contributions to its blog series confirms that its reach is broad across the sector, with a wide range of institutions, across many subject specialisms, contributing from the length and breadth of the UK. However, if our policy impact is limited to winning over hearts and minds to those working with narrowly defined specialist fields, then there is a risk of adverse unintended consequences for the most vulnerable in our society (e.g. when green transport solutions are costly to private households, it can lead to a widening of the opportunity gap and a further marginalisation of our most vulnerable). We need to promote our policy solutions in the round, always taking cognisance of the wider impact, which may be beyond our immediate field of expertise. In short, we need to work as a university policy community, rather than a collection of discrete subject-specific experts.

The Department of Social Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University

The Department of Social Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University must be doing something right! Notwithstanding the need for the analyst to be vigilant when drawing conclusions from university league tables, the latest offering of The Guardian for Sociology makes for interesting reading. With a student-to-staff ratio of 30.7 (4th highest of the 92 institutions ranked) and the tenth lowest staff-to-student spend per student, it is fair and safe comment that there has not been over-investment in this staff group! On the other hand, in 2020, the department’s degree offering was ranked 2nd in terms of course satisfaction, 3rd in the terms of teaching, 2nd in terms of value added, 5th in terms of feedback, 11th overall, and a ‘value added’ impact score of 9 out of 10. One possible reason for this favourable ranking might be the concerted effort made by the staff during the uncertainties of the academic year 2019/20 to involve its student body in the wider life of the department.

Indicative of this was the documenting of student impact within
“> Practising social science for the common good: GCU’s Department of Social Science and the coronavirus crisis. This brief report highlighted the Department’s contribution to the COVID-19 policy response and more besides. It highlighted that social science has a positive impact that extends beyond research impact; the report included examples of how social science students were practising everyday social science for the common good. The report was quickly produced and favourably received, and was promoted by the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce.

The Scottish and Poverty Inequality Unit

SPIRU is a small interdisciplinary research group based at Glasgow Caledonian University. It already delivers on the ‘impact’ agenda, with representation on the National Partners group of the Scottish Government to support local anti-poverty work, Carnegie Trust Working Group on Affordable Credit, the child poverty working group of the Scottish Leaders Forum, not to mention the Tartan Army Children’s Charity, among others. Our public engagement work is extensive, with invited presentations and keynote addresses delivered in 2020 to North Lanarkshire Council, Education Scotland, EIS PACT project, Voluntary Health Scotland, the Food Foundation, and the West Regional Improvement Collaborative, among others. Much of our research is commissioned by the Scottish Government, the Poverty and Inequality Commission, or local authorities in Scotland.

However, equally important is the impact that we make through affording opportunity for new and emerging research talent. Every year, we employ two new pre-doctoral candidates at 0.2FTE for 12 months to give them an induction to life within a university research unit. We present a Work Placement module that gives degree level students the opportunity to contribute as researchers to a small-scale applied research project (in 2019/20, the evaluation of a breakfast cart initiative in three local schools). We are also not removed from the wider life of our department. On the contrary, we take every opportunity to share our work with the broader community of social scientists at GCU. We take every opportunity to encourage our students to think about how they can contribute to tackling poverty in Scotland.

To conclude, if we (UPEN) achieve our objectives, policymaking will be enriched and the UK as a whole will benefit. However, as social scientists at least, we need to practice what we preach. We need to showcase what can be achieved through collaboration and engagement within our departments, communities and institutions. Let one (hundred) thousand (and more) flowers bloom!

Professor John H. McKendrick is Co-director of the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Back to resources