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Professor Nicky Gregson

Waste and recycling offers innovation and creativity.

“This was the first time I had worked with a school as part of a project and it was a genuinely positive process for everyone involved. It was only achieved because we were prepared to go the extra mile: the teachers, the kids, and the researcher team.” - Professor Nicky Gregson, Durham University

“I never anticipated that research into waste and global recycling networks could produce such creative and innovative pathways to impact,” says Professor Nicky Gregson referring to the two films, photography exhibition and school play that have happened as a consequence of the ESRC’s Waste of the World Large Grant “You create pathways and you attempt to follow them, but you are constantly working on them; some will shut down and others will open up. Much of what we have achieved is about opportunity and serendipity. It does not all unfold like a route map or a satnav, you have to be flexible and unexpected opportunities will arise,” she adds Professor Gregson speaks from experience. As the principal investigator on the Waste of the World (WotW), she has had to adapt to the changing expectations of the funding landscape. “When we won this grant, Pathways to Impact was not conceived and the idea of impact was only just starting to emerge as part of the research process,” she explains. The Waste of the World was a multi-disciplinary five-year research programme (2006 – 2011) bringing together researchers in geography, anthropology and materials science from the University of Sheffield, Durham University, University College London and Goldsmiths College London. It was made up of six individual projects exploring waste and economies in relation to waste, recycling and energy recovery and primary production.

During the lifetime of each project, the WoTW team have involved business and policy, inviting some of them to join the advisory group, and holding periodic meetings to discuss on-going research, emergent findings, and results. They were able to apply for additional knowledge exchange grants to boost the move from dissemination to impact. The team were clear that their main stakeholders would be government departments and businesses involved in waste management and recycling in the UK and outside of the EU. The hard bit was getting the decision makers and people with real influence to attend meetings. Professor Gregson says, “Aside from organising all policy meetings in London, we frequently rolled together interviews with top level stakeholders with dissemination and engagement, thereby allowing for in-depth discussion of our research findings as they emerged. The WotW team realised that there could be real benefit in bringing together some of the protagonists involved in the global ship recycling process. They organised a seminar exploring interim technological solutions for Bangladesh ship breaking, attended by ship breaking businesses from the UK and Bangladesh, European environmental consultants and the UK government. The seminar has helped to facilitate better contacts between these groups and also brought the WotW’s research to the attention of the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO). As a result Professor Gregson and her colleagues, Dr Crang and Dr Ahamed, gave a paper at a major international ship recycling conference in Dubai, which was widely reported in the shipping trade press. Subsequently, the IMO have used photographic imagery produced by the research in a photo essay on Bangladesh ship breaking.

Professor Gregson was keen to explore a variety of pathways to impact and set about seeking opportunities that would draw different groups into the projects. In the end there were three public engagement stands: working with schools; working with photographers and filmmakers; and designing and producing public exhibitions. With the help of the Geographical Association the ship breaking project team started working with a Sheffield school. Originally they intended to develop geography teaching materials. However, due to the enthusiasm, commitment and bravery of the researchers and teachers, the range and ambition of the project quickly expanded.

Top Tip:
Your pathways to impact are not ‘written in stone’: if you are flexible and respond to opportunities you may end up on a different yet more interesting path than you originally envisaged.

They took a group of children to Liverpool to see ship breaking in progress. From this experience a play was written and produced by the school’s drama and geography departments. Another school visit by Year 7 pupils to an incinerator led to a collaboration with the art department and the children’s art work representing recycling and reuse was displayed in Sheffield city centre during the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science 2011. Curriculum materials for key stages 3, 4 and 5 were developed jointly with the school and Geographical Association, and later pressed to DVD and supplied to all secondary schools in the UK.

Unintentionally, the children also became part of research process. A parallel research project was created based on the poignant and revealing interviews conducted by the school children with the veterans of the ship that was being salvaged.

“The stories the veterans told the kids was quite different to anything we would have gathered. Kids will ask questions that adults wouldn’t, such as whether they were frightened and what games they played on board ship,” observes Professor Gregson. The stories from the veterans, many of whom had seen service during Falkland War, have produced an additional research paper.

“This was the first time I had worked with a school as part of a project and it was a genuinely positive process for everyone involved. It was only achieved because we were prepared to go the extra mile: the teachers, the kids, and the researcher team. It created a whole new strand of work and put our post-docs under more pressure. As rewarding as this experience has been, you do need to appreciate how it impinges on the people you employ,” warns Professor Gregson.

Another strand of public engagement activity was with visual materials. In the UK and northern Europe the team found themselves working increasingly with photography. The textile recycling project saw researcher Lucy Norris collaborate with a professional photographer, Tim Mitchell, during their fieldwork documenting the textile recycling industry in India. These photographs featured in an exhibition at the Horniman Museum in South London, called India Recycled. The exhibition ran from 8 months and attracted 71,000 visitors. It achieved coverage in local and national media and specialist press.

The research team was also involved in two independent films. One of these films was a main feature for the project’s very ambitious final end of award event. Professor Gregson and her team, hosted a public exhibition in central London for one weekend, co-curated by Clare Patey and Lucy Norris. Approximately 1,000 members of the public attended the exhibition. They invited stakeholders too and used the event to put on a day of workshops and seminars around the findings of the project. “We tied together the ship salvaging and textile stuff and in a way that brought it home to ordinary people. There was film, photography, and collaboration with the London School of Fashion. We did not want to be didactic we wanted people to come to our research and engage in it in the way they wanted to. It was important to have it in a non-academic space, because the issues explored in this project impact on everyone.”

Institution: Durham University
Funding council: ESRC


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