Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Wrapping up the PhD

By Helen

This Thursday I will officially receive my doctorate at my PhD graduation ceremony. It is now almost seven months since I handed my thesis in and more than five months since I passed my viva. I've been employed as a full-time research associate since the start of 2015, but it seems to take a long time to truly wrap up the PhD. There's of course the small matter of the viva, and then professionally printing and resubmitting the final version of the thesis before you can really breathe a sigh of relief and entertain the thought that you are now moving into a new phase of your (academic) career. And even then there are many loose ends to tie up in terms of reporting important findings to research partners, sharing the finished thesis with them and others, working out when and in what contexts you can use the title 'Dr' before your name, and of course trying to write up high quality journal articles based on your PhD research. Someone told me that it took them until years after completing the PhD to really understand what it was about and see it in broader context, whilst others have said I'll be amazed at how quickly I'll be prepared to cast it aside and move onto other things. 

My public graduation ceremony, however, seems like a good time to draw some sort of line under the PhD experience by reporting on some of my main findings and reflecting on some of the things I've learnt. My PhD thesis entitled 'Organising science policy: participation, learning & experimentation in British democracy' is available open access here. Below I have tried to briefly summarise my approach and findings.


A strong argument in recent academic literature had emphasised the need to look beyond individual instances of public participation in science policy to gain a more systemic understanding of their multiple forms and effects. This argument also came in the context of the increased institutionalisation of public participation methods within governing bodies in the UK, Europe and beyond, over the past decade – a development which has not yet been extensively described and analysed by academics. Therefore I chose to look at the institutionalisation of this practice through the lens of organisational learning, in order to capture both the stabilities and shifts in approaches to public participation in the UK.

Sciencewise is an important body in understanding the evolution of the UK Government’s approach to public participation. It was initially launched in 2004 in the wake of high profile calls for public participation to become an integral part of science policymaking. Since Sciencewise’s re-launch in 2007 as the Government’s Expert Resource Centre for public dialogue, the programme has carried out public dialogue processes around a wide-range of high-profile science policy areas from stem cell regulation to regional flood responses and an international decision about the use of leap seconds. In the most recent programme contract, which began in 2012, Sciencewise has built on its existing reputation, enjoying a higher profile and influence within Government. 


I conducted a multi-sited ethnography around the UK Government-funded public dialogue programme Sciencewise. Throughout 2013 I attended internal and public meetings related to the programme, interviewed programme actors, and analysed relevant documents in order to gain a better understanding of organisational learning in four different organisational spaces which I had identified around the programme. During the period of research further interesting organisational spaces emerged which I was also able to follow up. All of this data was analysed using an open interpretive coding structure focussed towards my interest in learning and reflection. 

Key findings

  • Organisational learning is not straight-forward, linear, uni-vocal or comprehensive, rather it happens differently in different organisational spaces and processes, has many eddies and shifts in course, and is closely wrapped up with the (intentional and unintentional) production of forms of ignorance and non-knowledge. Visions of the past and the future are far from fixed, but rather are continually made and remade through organisational routines and learning processes. Furthermore, learning processes will be interpreted differently from different perspectives in and around an organisation, or in light of later processes and conjunctions.
  • Sciencewise presents itself as a 'learning organisation' and has made significant contributions to thinking and practice on organisational learning and memory, however the programme lacks an explicit focus on thinking about and reflecting on its own internal learning processes (though many individual actors do this), instead focusing on the learning of its partner and contractor bodies. 
  • The increased size of the Sciencewise programme from 2012 onwards has both limited and improved its capacities for organisational learning. On the one hand organisational communication processes have become more complicated and formalised, with an increased need for audit processes which generally encourage more instrumental forms of learning (e.g. the learning of key facts and figures). On the other hand a more diverse group of actors and bodies have become involved in the programme since 2012 creating opportunities for learning from external bodies and processes, and encouraging tacit reflection on organisational goals and activities. 
  • Sciencewise's prominent role Government debates about open policy had a significant influence on the programme's own understanding of its role and activities, encouraging programme actors to reflect on the range of different ways it might be possible to represent 'public voices' in policy processes, and encouraging the programme to engage with new Government departments and policy areas. 
  • Many significant processes of learning and reflection during the period of research came from unexpected places and processes. The open policy debates are a good example of this, as well as an internal 'theory of change' process which was suggested by one of the steering group members, and some more innovative methods used by dialogue partners and contractors in several public dialogue projects.
  • The UK Government model of outsourcing and auditing activities is potentially damaging for more reflective learning, as it creates chains of reporting where the richness of findings presented can easily be lost, or objects are translated and reinterpreted in radically different ways in new contexts. 

Implications for practice

  • There is a need for more processes consciously directed at imagining and anticipating the possible futures of public dialogue and engagement, in order to generate leadership in the public engagement field and to identify potential stumbling blocks and possible unintended consequences of new practices. 
  • Periodic organised opportunities for collective reflection and learning like Sciencewise's theory of change process are potentially very useful and constructive, in stimulating higher-level learning and bringing together existing processes of learning and reflection.
  • Organisational learning can also be promoted through less resource intensive means, simply through a conscious disposition of experimentation and reflection which is aware that opportunities for learning can emerge from unexpected places, and even perceived mistakes and failures. Small measures put in place to monitor and iteratively modify new activities and ventures could have huge gains in terms of learning and reflection.

Implications for further research

Future research on organisational learning could usefully look at the connections between different kinds of organisational spaces, to understand how more transformative insights from often temporary, experimental and informal organisational spaces can sometimes be translated into more general and formalised organisational spaces and activities. Another productive area for further research would be for social scientists to more explicitly experiment with interventions in organisational learning processes in order to monitor the effects on learning and reflexivity. 

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