Improving collaboration between practitioners and academics: what to do? (with a little help from Einstein)

April 21, 2017 6 By Duncan Green

Previous posts in this 3 part series explored the obstacles to INGO-academic collaboration, and the lessons of systems thinking. This final post suggests some theory v factsways forward (with some sarcastic asides from Einstein)

Based on all of the above, a number of ideas emerge for consideration by academics, INGOs and funders of research.

Suggestions for academics

Comments on the blogposts that formed the basis for this article provided a wealth of practical advice to academics on how to work more productively with INGOs. These include the following:

  • Create research ideas and proposals collaboratively. This means talking to each other early on, rather than academics looking for NGOs to help their dissemination, or NGOs commissioning academics to undertake policy-based evidence making.
  • Don’t just criticise and point to gaps – understand the reasons for them (gaps in both NGO programmes and their research capacity) and propose solutions. Work to recognise practitioners’ strengths and knowledge.
  • Make research relevant to real people in communities. This means proper discussions and dialogue at design, research and analysis stages, disseminated drafts and discussing findings locally on publication.
  • Set up reflection spaces in universities where NGO practitioners can go to take time out for days, weeks or months, and can be supported to reflect on and write up their experiences, network with others and gain new insights on their work.
  • Catalyse more exchange of personnel in both directions. Universities could replicate the author’s ‘Professor in Practice’ position at the London School of Economics and Political Science, while INGOs could appoint honorary fellows, who could help guide their thinking in return for access to their work.

Suggestions for INGOs

In addition to collaborating in the ways discussed above, INGOs could encourage cooperation by:

  • Being open about their knowledge base, especially the large amount of data collected while monitoring and evaluating their projects. Oxfam now makes its impact evaluation survey data free to download.
  • Finding cost-effective ways of cooperating through long-term but loose networks maintained over time, which can be activated when necessary (e.g. in response to events or new priorities). This is less time intensive than establishing dense and time-consuming networks that often peter out for lack of resources.
  • Setting up arm’s length collaborative watchdogs on particular institutions or issues with a research function, that maintains a network of academics and activists, as well as maintaining institutional knowledge. Good examples are the Bretton Woods Projector Control Arms.
  • Building bridges at all levels of the knowledge ‘food chain’: INGOs need to go beyond the academic big names and conference attractions to build links with early career researchers. For example, Transparency International has set up a programme called Campus for Transparency that match-makes a Transparency International chapter or staff member who has a specific research need with a university MA programme or student who would then deliver this specific research product as part of their study requirement. PhD students can be involved along similar lines, provided the issues identified are sufficiently core to the INGOs’ work that they will not be made redundant by shifting priorities before the thesis is even written!

einstein theory v practiceSuggestions for funders

By insisting on evidence of impact, and supporting partnerships and consortia involving both researchers and practitioners, governments and aid donor funders already contribute significantly to bridging the academic–INGO divide. But they could do more, including the following:

  • Innovative financing – for example, offering 50/50 funding, half for programmes on the ground and half for research. At the moment donors seem to fund one or the other (research with a few links to practitioners, or programmes with a bit of money for monitoring, evaluation and learning), which misses a chance to foster deeper links.
  • They could also fund intermediary organisations with a mandate to build bridges between the two worlds. According to a recent Carnegie UK report:

Numerous studies reveal that people and small businesses outside universities find them impenetrable institutions. A member of the public or a community or voluntary organisation seeking a relevant point of contact in a university to discuss their research-related query often encounters a huge, incomprehensible organisation whose website is structured according to supply-side logic (faculties, departments, degree programmes) rather than according to demand considerations or user needs.

You can download the chapter in the IDS book on which these posts are based here.