Collaboration and Engagement in Research: learning from international practice through the EqUIP Staff Exchange Scheme

Natalie Jones, from ESRC, shares her experience in taking part to the Staff Exchange Scheme organised by the Social Sciences Division of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) on 21-22 April 2016 in The Hague, Netherlands. Representatives of the following funding agencies, partners of the EqUIP platform, have attended the initiative: ICHR (India); ICSSR (India); MIZS (Slovenia); ANR (France); ESRC (UK); AHRC (UK). Here is a useful personal insight on the role of mutual learning from international practice.

“Recently I was lucky enough to participate in a staff exchange to the Social Sciences Division of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to learn about innovations in knowledge exchange.  Supported 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.

With the new Global Challenges Research Fund at the forefront of my mind, I 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 near the thronging Binnenhof parliamentary complex in The Hague, I found out about three ways that the Social Sciences Division at NWO encourages researchers to benefit from engagement and collaboration with non academics.

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.  Last year, 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?”

The result was an interdisciplinary agenda for Dutch researchers truly informed by the general public as well as public, private, civil society and university sector representatives.  More so, the process 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.

Funding research partnerships #1– two stage approaches

Knowing that good quality partnerships between researchers and non-academics needs time and therefore money, the Social Sciences division at NWO often uses two stage processes for inviting bids for funding where between researchers and non-academics are expected to be co-applicants.

Partnerships successful at first stage are awarded modest non-returnable funding for partnership development activities. For NWO, investment in partnership development is a legitimate and necessary use of public research funds.

At ESRC we have used two stage application processes to great success for example in our Transformative Research scheme.  We invest considerably in convening events and online spaces for partnerships to come together as in the case of our current call for an Evidence Centre in Housing and we are also supporting a range of strategic networks through our annual Seminars Competition which we are hoping will lead to lots of new collaborations.  NWO’s approach made me reflect that we should think of ways of rewarding high quality partnerships that aren’t successful in their bids for funding to the Research Councils but wish to continue to work together.

Funding research partnerships #2 – practitioner and policymaker led grants

Collaborative research is actively encouraged by the UK research councils. Non-academic organisations in the public, private and civil society sectors can act as partners who contribute funding and in kind support to projects or their staff can participate as co-investigators where they provide some of the intellectual leadership to the research.  However, the funding available to non-academics especially from business and the public services rarely covers the full cost of being a co-investigator and schemes do not allow non academics to be the lead partner.

I was therefore intrigued, in fact inspired, by the requirement of the Food and Business Research call operated by NWO’s Science for Global Development programmes (NWO-WOTRO) that private and public practitioner organisations registered in one of the fifteen partner countries act as the main applicant with academic researchers as the supporting partner.

We heard how this approach has meant extra work for NWO-WOTRO to build the capacity of applicants from non-university backgrounds to apply successfully.  However, NWO-WOTRO is committed to expanding the model to other programmes.

And finally

So, from my visit, the innovations I encountered through the EQUIP Staff Exchange helped me to think how new funding programmes – such as the Global Challenges Research Fund – could be designed with collaboration and engagement at their very core.  This does mean we will need to challenge traditional ways of working and be prepared to think and act differently, but my experience with NWO and the other delegates on the exchange assured me that the effort and resources used to embed collaboration in the vision and practices of our schemes will be well rewarded.

This staff exchange took place 21-22 April 2016 in The Hague, Netherlands. Attending were representatives of the following funding agencies: ICHR (India); ICSSR (India); MIZS (Slovenia); ANR (France); ESRC (UK); AHRC (UK).”

Disclaimer: the text above represents personal views.