How research collaboration is encouraged internationally

Natalie Jones is Senior Portfolio Manager for Knowledge Exchange at ESRC.

Natalie Jones 150x150

Earlier this year Natalie was lucky enough to participate in a staff exchange to the Social Sciences Division of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) on ‘Innovations in Knowledge Exchange’. Organised by the EU-India Social Science and Humanities Platform (EqUIP), the exchange is one of a number of international visits to create new relationships and collaborations between organisations in the EU and India that fund academic research in the social sciences and humanities.

I particularly wanted to ‘kNWO’ (see what I did there!) how other research funders encourage participation from non-academics in research. Following a full day of action (including dinner at a restaurant opposite the Binnenhof parliamentary complex in the centre of The Hague!), I learned three ways to encourage collaboration in academic research.

The Dutch national research agenda – an exemplar of public engagement… through TV!

Imagine turning on the television to watch a prime time programme. Rather than finding entertaining segments and actors discussing their latest project, the set is filled with economists, psychologists and engineers asking the audience which topics scientists should make their most important priorities for research. Unlikely?

Not in the case of the Dutch National Research Agenda (DNRA) which had opportunities for public engagement like this embedded throughout. All sectors of Dutch society were invited to submit questions and take part in events co-ordinated by the Dutch Knowledge Coalition.

In barely a few months, more than 11,000 suggestions were sifted by expert juries such as “How do we protect ourselves against natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods?” and “How can we improve our understanding and treatment of pulmonary diseases?”

Its resulted in an interdisciplinary agenda for Dutch researchers, truly informed by the general public as well as private, public, civil society and university sector representatives.

The process has released considerable energy and commitment for future collaboration which will need ongoing support from the Knowledge Coalition. I was reminded that high quality public engagement requires sustained commitment and resourcing for it to succeed in its objectives.

Funding research partnerships #1– two stage approaches

To summarise: investment in partnership and trust development is a legitimate and necessary use of public research funds which should be accompanied by data collection on the types and impact of partnerships supported.

It is ‘kNWOn’ that developing good quality partnerships between researchers and non-academics is time and resource intensive yet vital for the delivery of successful collaborative research. We learnt that NWO would at times use a two stage process for inviting applications for collaborative research.

Partnerships successful at first stage would be awarded modest non-returnable funding for partnership development activities. In the event of a second stage application not being successful, investment in the partnership has taken place which could be used to support future activities.

It did not appear that NWO had carried out an evaluation of the impact of this approach on the longevity and eventual success of such partnerships in raising funding and whether the approach had attracted a different range of non-academic organisations to participate in collaborative research.

Funding research partnerships #2 – practitioner and policymaker led grants

Collaborative research is actively encouraged by the UK research councils and it is possible for non-academics working in the public, private and civil society sectors to participate as a partner contributing funding or in kind support to a project or for staff to be part of the research team contributing to intellectual leadership.

However, the funding available to non-academics especially from business and the public services rarely covers the full cost of collaboration and does not allow non academics to be the lead partner.

I was therefore intrigued, in fact inspired, by the requirement in NWO’s Science for Global Development programmes (NWO-WOTRO), including the Food and Business Research call, for private and public practitioner organisations registered in one of the fifteen partner countries to act as the main applicant for Dutch research funding.

This approach has meant that NWO has had to provide considerable capacity building support for lead applicants from non-university backgrounds and are looking to expand the model to other programmes.

So, overall, the Innovations in ‘KNWOledge’ Exchange has helped me to think how new funding programmes – such as the recently launched Global Challenges Research Fund – can be designed differently.

All of the innovations I encountered have required sustained commitment from a research funder as well as the development of new capabilities amongst NWO staff and academic researchers to support non-traditional applicants through the process of creating and benefitting from research knowledge.

NWO were convinced of the value and impact of supporting participative projects and we should seriously consider their value too.


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