RRI & How academics can work with Third Sector Report

Interaction report front

I really enjoyed this very practical and useful report by Professor Mark Shucksmith of Newcastle University for the Carnegie UK Trust called InterAction – How can academics and the third sector work together to influence policy and practice?

It echoes and builds on a lot of what we have been doing under the moniker of Stakeholder Involvement and Responsible Research and Innovation; other thinking on ‘What’s an Academic For’  and also the work I am doing on ’embedding RRI – or Delivering the People’s University’  with the University of Sheffield.  But first:

A Visual Exec Summary is a fantastic idea!

up front visualThis is a great way to represent the outline findings and report navigation.  I will never do one the old way again!

Observations I liked

There are some interesting observations and findings and while many are depressingly familiar, it’s nice to see others banging on about them too!  I think because of the nature of the sponsor and Mark’s experience it is focused on social science influence on policy rather than some of the harder science and societal impacts and responsibilities that RRI focuses on, and third sector rather than all stakeholders – but its recommendations seem to me to apply everywhere. Things that leapt out for me on first reading:

  • University research results are the least used, but the most trusted by policy makers or practitioners, mainly because people can’t access them and when they can, they can’t really understand what they are trying to say.  (This is probably my biggest ‘hobby horse’!)  Internet and media are where policy people go for help, as well as listening to lobbying of all types.
  • Because of the mismatch between academics who’s primary motivation is citations and the CSOs who’s is about impact in the real world, they don’t interact to benefit each other or society as well as they could. This is true of relationships with all stakeholders, business & policy people and is at the heart of the potential work we are doing on exploring academic relations with business and the disappointment of philanthropists with the use of their academic gifts.
  • This disconnect is only recent and is surprising given that many Universities were actually founded to meet the needs of society. The nail in the coffin, he says, was 1981 when central government took control of higher education, narrowed the definition of success and encouraged Universities to turn inward and focus on the ‘all devouring audit culture…(which makes) universities less efficient places.. to think and teach’. There are useful recommendations for HEFCE, man – I particularly agree with the way the Impact agenda is being gamed to still support citations above all else and of course, the funding problem.
  • Academics belittle other forms of knowledge and so other organisations don’t want to work with them! The discourse of knowledge transfer of the clever people to the rest sticks around instead of thinking in favour of knowledge exchange or participation – this is a big stumbling block.
  • The belief that academia delivers ‘cold hard facts’ unsullied by politics & values still prevails and I like the section where he picks that apart.
  • Even if stakeholders do want to work with Universities, academia is so fragmented and siloed, no-one knows how to get hold of people and who to contact, even if they did want to work together – so they don’t really try. We are finding this ourselves with the constraints on a proposed mapping exercise.  We have the web now, surely guys this is doable on a website in 2016!
  • It references Goddard’s Civic University model, which has a lot in common with our proposed approach, though doesn’t seem to actively challenge the business model of research, which I think we are a bit more.  It reminds me a bit of the sort of  company who’s focus is not on their core approach, but looking at being a leader in ‘community relations’., meanwhile business of stashing cash goes on as usual.  I think I’m being a bit unfair there, as I don’t know the model well.
  • The Engaged Cornell case study is perhaps more interesting as it appears to be more strategic and challenging to the business model too.
  • All stakeholders agree that RCUK doesn’t fund enough or stipulate the need for engagement or ‘translation’.  Agree with that on the whole, but on the other hand academics have to take up the offers of money which they often don’t.
  • The report calls for ‘boundary spanners’ and ‘knowledge brokers’ to do this.  I am not totally sure about this.  Of course I am one, it’s what I do all day, but it still seems to me to be important for the academics  to be understandable in the sodding first place then you don’t need to pay people for this job!  In my view it should be an essential component of the use of public money to make findings accessible and stipulate up front how you are doing to do that.   Of course you need institutional help for that as part of the central services of a University, but also as part of project delivery mechansisms.  Money needs to be put into that, and, as the report says, those delivering it seen as more than functionaries, marketing the great wisdom of the Profs!
  • It gives examples of some good partnerships and models and on page 28 some main institutional changes highlighted by the N8 Research Partnership, which are also very good and separate from the final findings.

Recommendations:

Not dissimilar to what we are saying and doing with RRI on a lot of fronts.   I will be reflecting on our approach and proposed actions in relation to these recommendations, particularly in relation to my campaign to get scientists to listen to and involve NGOs in their work, rather than seeing them as the enemy.

I am pleased to say that in terms of recommendations for 3rd sector orgs, I am pretty much doing all of it, or at least advocating all of it to stakeholders and academics!

The guidance to HEFCE is interesting and if they are taken forward, our work with Robotics, Plant Science and Disability Studies could volunteer for piloting new models. I think RRI would have more far-reaching recommendations to these though, particularly on negative impacts and responsibilities.

Comparisons to RRI

No negative impacts discussed

I think it is very close, and gives us some good evidence and thinking for our next steps in terms of the Why & How aspect of involving stakeholders in research, and institutional issues which may help Universities who are looking to lead on this, like Sheffield.

It seems to me that the emphasis is on creating a positive societal impact for research through collaboration with CSO’s for practical outcomes and policy influence, rather than considerations of responsibilities and potential negative impacts, which also come with RRI because of the nature of its history.

This would come out mor certainly if stakeholders were involved in research in this way, but it isn’t emphasised. I think because RRI came out of fear of unintended consequences and this came out of making Universities more effective in responding to society’s needs, this is to be expected. Both are important.

To finish, a quote from Heather Campbell on N8

Though it’s not part of the report, I really liked this quote from Heather Campbell at the N8 launch  which seemed to me to illustrate nicely the shift it brings and what it looks like for researchers if we do RRI/Co-production, responsive research or whatever we end up calling it:

“Because there is something at stake in all the activities we have undertaken during this programme, it has brought with it new demands and responsibilities on all of us. It is not just a question of establishing a research project and going off and doing it. There is a constant process of iteration and learning with your partners and that raises new demands on us and perhaps even new ways that we might have to think about how we do research, what appropriate academic practices are – even what we define as being research. Not just questions about what’s going on, but how should things be changed, how should we translate what we know into meaningful outcomes on the ground.”

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