Blog, Others' work

Helping academics & CSOs collaborate

Hilary Sutcliffe

4 Jan 2017

This is a 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.  It gives some good evidence and thinking for considering the Why & How aspect of involving stakeholders in research, and institutional issues which may help Universities who are looking to lead on this.  It may be particularly useful for those academics in the UK working on the Global Challenges Research Fund.


A visual executive summary is a particularly great idea and should be compulsory with all academic reports!

Interesting findings

There are some interesting observations and findings and while many are depressingly familiar, it’s nice to see others banging on about them as well as just us. 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 include:

  • 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 – 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!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’. I agree with that on the whole, but on the other hand academics have to take up the offers of money to do this work, which they very often don’t.
  • The report calls for ‘boundary spanners’ and ‘knowledge brokers’ to do this. This is important, but it still seems to me to be important for the academics to make more strenuous efforts to build their skills in this area as well. 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 mechanism. 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 Professors.
  • 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 important and separate from the final findings.

All in all a really worthwhile document on a subject of growing important for academic researchers looking to improve the quality of their research and make a difference in the world.