A short history of NCRM

NCRM news
Graham Crow, NCRM, University of Edinburgh

As the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) begins its 16th year there are many achievements of which the team can be both proud and confident that they will have an enduring legacy. The NCRM arose out of recognition in the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), its principal funder, and in the broader social science community that the development of research methods and the widespread adoption of these innovations promised to take social science research in the UK to a new level. Expressed in the language of the early 2000s there was the potential to effect a ‘step change’ in methodological competence and capacity. 

The founding NCRM team was able to ‘hit the ground running’ from its inception in 2004 partly because the foundations had been laid through prior ESRC investment in the Research Methods Programme (RMP). From their base at the University of Southampton and with Chris Skinner as the first Director, the NCRM ‘hub’ co-ordinated a wide-ranging programme of research and training in social science research methods. This programme included working with teams of ‘nodes’ based across the UK whose research and training focussed on advancing methodological practice in specific areas. This structure, and its underpinning philosophy of encouraging social scientists at all career stages to update and broaden their methodological knowledge and skills, continued into the second five-year period (2009-14) under Professor Skinner’s successor, Patrick Sturgis. During this time the composition of the nodes evolved, as did the membership of the hub team, but a recognisable NCRM ethos continued. For its third five-year period NCRM evolved further into a new shape, with teams in Edinburgh and Manchester joining Southampton colleagues to extend geographical reach and the range of expertise of the hub, and with funding of nodes replaced by support for methodological research projects, together with revised arrangements for the delivery of training to enhance the social science community’s capacity in research methods.

At its heart, NCRM embodies the belief that robust, powerful and imaginative research methods are needed to keep the work of social scientists both trustworthy and relevant. It also confirms that the advancement of research methods theory and practice is best achieved in an open and supportive environment in which researchers from different disciplines, sectors, career stages and methodological traditions can come together and learn from each other. The biennial Research Methods Festival, which NCRM took over from RMP, sounded to sceptics ‘a contradiction in terms’ but has in practice been a remarkable event in which the easy engagement of economists with anthropologists, policy-makers with programmers, and research students with more seasoned colleagues fostered a tangible enthusiasm. The photographic, film and other records of these flagship events run by NCRM (first in Oxford and then Bath) stand as evidence of the NCRM ethos writ large, but NCRM has also been about a host of other things. These include undertaking research into improving the range and quality of the contents of the research methods ‘tool box’, delivering stand-alone training events and summer/autumn schools, and developing a body of virtual resources that are available to on-line learners across the world. 

This progressively expanding portfolio of outputs saw the NCRM team not only deliver on the project’s initial commitments but also pursue new opportunities as they emerged. Figures on the usage of resources indicated a healthy appetite for learning about research methods (who would have guessed that either videos on structural equation modelling or discussions of qualitative interview samples would prove quite as popular as they have done?) The NCRM website has established itself as a convenient place for people from around the world to access resources about all aspects of social science methods, from short, descriptive explanations of what a particular method involves, through pedagogical aids for teachers of research methods to material furthering debates about the meaning, purpose and future of social scientific inquiry.

In addition to the wide range of resources and events for which it has been responsible, NCRM has also been a learning experience for all concerned. Of the many lessons to be derived from such a large and multi-faceted undertaking, a particularly important one relates to teamwork and the oft-repeated observation that successful collaboration produces results that are greater than the sum of the various parts. Disciplines working together have the potential to achieve more than they would be able to separately, and the same is true for cross-institutional teams (provided inherited rivalries can be put to one side) and for people in different roles. 

The thought experiment of where academics would be without administrators and technicians (or vice versa) is a useful reminder of the value of teamwork and mutual interdependence. A particularly memorable autumn school presentation reported a programmer’s perplexed response to a request that a researcher had imagined was simple: ‘But that’s 10,000 lines of code!’ – a story that teamwork ensured ended happily. Such outcomes are by no means inevitable in a field like research methods where innovation is the norm, and is by its nature disruptive of established ways of working. Through facilitating not only the growth of knowledge but also ways for people to adjust to these changing landscapes, NCRM has delivered the ‘step change’ expected of it. Looking ahead, the current NCRM Director Gabi Durrant and her team are well-placed to take things further still as they move into the next phase of challenges and opportunities.