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Three lessons from bringing together researchers from our funded projects

Partnerships Manager Owain Johnstone blogs following the workshop with researchers working on addressing wider policies and laws addressing modern slavery.

Published: 12th December 2022

On Monday 21st November, we brought together researchers and partners from the five project teams funded under our recent ‘Modern slavery and wider laws and policies’ call for research for an all-day workshop.

Recognising that modern slavery in its many forms results from multiple, overlapping drivers, including poverty, exclusion or simply lack of opportunities for people to provide for themselves and their families, the funding call was issued to develop evidence on areas that aren’t necessarily focused specifically on modern slavery, but that focus on wider contexts and systems important in addressing these root causes of people getting trapped in exploitative situations.

The five projects funded under this call focus on adult services websites, safeguarding of children with special educational needs and disabilities, protecting people affected by modern slavery in prisons, UK agriculture and care visas, and UK trade and investment policies.

This was the first time we have been able to bring together a group of our funded project teams in person for an in-depth discussion, which was a wonderful opportunity to share learnings and forge new connections. The two major themes of the discussion were defining and operationalising ‘modern slavery’ as a concept in research, and considering implications of employing particular methods of research for impact on policy.

Special thanks go to the Alan Turing Institute for kindly providing us with a venue for the workshop, and also to our guest speakers who so brilliantly sparked off discussion on the day. The workshop was held under the Chatham House rules.

In this blogpost, we reflect on some of our key take-aways from the discussion.

1. It helps to be transparent, consistent and pragmatic about definitions

Each of the five projects is looking at modern slavery in relation to an adjacent policy area, such as immigration policy or prisons policy. That means that each team is speaking to multiple groups of stakeholders that will be familiar with different definitions and concepts relating to vulnerability and exploitation. ‘Modern slavery’ as a term may resonate for some but not for others. And practitioners have their own understandings of the usefulness of different terms based on their day-to-day realities. There are no hard and fast lines here, so choosing what concepts to use and how to define them has to be a pragmatic question: which definitions will make most sense to your stakeholders, and which ones will help you achieve policy impact?

One participant pointed out that it is important to consider the value and purpose of different terms as part of understanding policy goals – describing something as ‘slavery’ is shocking, and this can be the intention, but it is important to think carefully about the impacts of employing different terms on different audiences. This means thinking in advance about these implications, exploring how stakeholders understand these terms as part of the research, and reflecting on the relationship or tensions between terms in different policy areas as part of the findings.

‘The workshop provided space to consider early on how definitions shape and govern our research projects. Definitions matter, but it is important not to lose sight of their limitations. Our task is to produce evidence using definition(s) as a guide, but equally to reflect on the appropriateness of such definition(s) in light of the emerging evidence. This dynamic lies at the heart of our respective enquiries.’

Participant of the workshop

2. It is important to understand how research is used in the complex machinery of government

Our guest government analyst speaker talked through the way in which research evidence is used in government, including the role of the different analytical professions in the civil service – such as economists, social researchers, and many more! – in collating and translating evidence for policymakers in response to their evidence needs. For researchers, it’s important to understand the different roles in government and the processes that might affect how their research feeds into the development of policy.

It's also important for researchers to communicate what method they used and why, so that it’s clear to policymakers what was involved in the research. Researchers should make clear any caveats around research findings (for example, how far they can be generalised) and present their research outputs in a brief and accessible way, written in plain English for a non-expert audience. Taking these steps means that policymakers will have a much clearer idea of what a piece of research can tell them and makes it more likely that the research will be able to inform their decision-making.

3. Collaboration is key to maximising impact from the research

It was heartening to see such a diverse group of Modern Slavery PEC projects together in a room, sharing learnings and exploring opportunities to collaborate. Many of the projects are on topics where vulnerability and exploitation are understood and dealt with quite differently from the way that policy has developed on modern slavery. Bringing the teams together made it clear to us that there is an enormous future potential with this group of projects if they can continue to speak to one another. The partnerships which underpin each project are already bringing to light important tensions and intersections between different policy challenges and approaches, and how different vulnerabilities are related and can become compounded.

There is huge value in bringing together groups of researchers and their collaborators like this, helping to move forward the modern slavery conversation and, ultimately, leading to better evidence and better policy.