Monday 9 March 2020

Seven Steps to Perfect Partnerships

Meshing about (Photo by Kumiko SHIMIZU on Unsplash)

As funders increasingly push for larger, strategic grants through such schemes as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund, research development officers in universities are having to stimulate and support interdisciplinary teams of researchers working together, often for the first time.

This is no easy task. It is something I’ve been grappling with since I started in research development more than a decade ago. It is become more pressing in my new role as director of Eastern Arc, the regional research consortium that brings together the universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent.

It is made more complex if the partnerships need to cross disciplinary boundaries. This is increasingly common: funders often see interdisciplinary partnerships as the best way to encourage researchers to tackle society’s biggest problems.

I’ve written before about the challenges we face in trying to get out of our disciplinary silos. Most researchers have been trained to concentrate their efforts in an increasingly narrow field. This has been reinforced by the metrics of measurement, whether that be through the Research Excellence Framework, citation count, H index, or other yardsticks. Those working squarely within their discipline often find it easier to get recognition—and funding—for their work than do their discipline-straddling colleagues.

Given this, how should research managers encourage and support collaboration? For me, there are seven main points to bear in mind:
  1. Involve the right people. You might think you know who to approach for the project. It’s the ‘big hitters’, right? Those with the profile and track record to lead a project. While that’s true to a certain extent, there may be very valid reasons not to involve them (see the next point) or actively involve others. More importantly, you might not know everyone who should be included. Talk to your directors of research, or to other research development officers who may have a different take on appropriate participants
  2. Don’t try to force collaboration. Academics and researchers have got to want to collaborate and to see value in it. Don’t assume that people could or should work together, just because they seem to work in similar areas. It’s often the case that they don’t. In addition, there may be politics or a personality clash involved. A collaboration is like a marriage and both sides have to actually want to sign up for a long-term relationship
  3. Understand what everyone wants. Partners can often have different expectations of what they might get out of the partnership. What are their agendas? Where do they overlap? The hopes and aspirations of all the partners must be complementary. If there are concerns, face them rather than bury them. They may be insurmountable, but it’s worth finding that out before you start rather than half way through the project.
  4. Start small. Don’t assume you can put together a multi-million pound international project when the participants barely know each other. It may be the case that, rather than barrelling into a huge GCRF project, for example, you aim for something a little less ambitious to test the partnership out first.
  5. Take time. This isn’t always easy when calls are short, but that’s the point. You need to start way before the call comes out. Rather than responding to a specific call you should be thinking months or even years ahead, mapping your strengths against upcoming priorities (indicated in such documents as the UK Research and Innovation delivery plans or the industrial strategy), and be ready for the calls when they come.
  6. Step back at the right moment. Your role is the perfect party host, not a headlining act. You should introduce people and facilitate the conversation, but not force the discussion. Get people talking, but step back when the link is made.
  7. Be focused. During my career I’ve been involved in too many sandpits and workshops where there hasn’t been a clear enough focus. We have got people together in a room to discuss and make links, but we haven’t had an end goal other than helping people to play nicely. There needs to be a purpose in your match-making.
These seven points are as true for large-scale, institutional collaborations as they are for smaller, project-level teams. In the first six months of my role at Eastern Arc I’ve spent most of my time talking to people, understanding what everyone wants (both at senior leadership level and on the ground), identifying the people with the knowledge to connect people across the universities, taking the time and starting small by setting up a facilitation fund.

We’ve still got a long way to go. As with individual researchers, institutions have been encouraged to work alone for a long time. Yes, the government and funders may be making the right noises about working together, but the reality of marketised higher education is ruthless competition, whether that be for students, or research grants, or league table position. It is often a zero-sum game, and where others win you lose, and vice versa.

That is not to say we shouldn’t encourage collaborations and partnerships. In fact, the reverse is true: it’s never been more important to do so. Just don’t expect to get the big pay-off straight away. It may take years for the efforts to come to fruition, but the outcome will be worth the effort. It is in partnerships that real progress lies, and it is through working together that significant and exciting advances can be made.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in February 2020 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment