How can Academics and NGOs work together? Some smart new ideas

Just finished ‘Interaction’, a thought-provoking report on ‘How can academics and the third sector work together to Interaction coverinfluence policy and practice’. Written by Mark Shucksmith for the Carnegie UK Trust, the report has some good research and new suggestions on a hoary old topic.

First up, a striking stat that underlines the imbalance in size and resources between academia and the third sector (voluntary organizations, NGOs etc): a total of 200,000 academics work in UK universities. Wow.

But that is not translating into influence. Based on a survey of 484 policy makers and practitioners, the report reaches this overall finding:

‘Evidence from university research was the most trusted (always or usually trusted by 68% of respondents), but one of the least-used sources of evidence (frequently used by only 35% of respondents). Instead, evidence tended to be gleaned from the internet and the media, even though these sources were much less trusted. Third-sector organisations’ research (and especially that of think tanks) was less trusted than university research, but their outputs were more likely to be read than those from academia.’

Implication? ‘There is clear scope for universities and third-sector organisations to explore working together to influence policy and practice, building on the trust enjoyed by university research, while also capitalising on voluntary and community organisations’ apparently greater success in reaching policy and practice.’

So if academics have the brain power, while NGOs have the comms and networks – what’s stopping them combining forces?

The Evidence Ecosystem
The Evidence Ecosystem

‘Most studies identify a need for ‘knowledge brokers’ not only to bridge the gap between the realms of science and policy, but also to synthesise and transform evidence into an effective and usable form for policy and practice, through a process akin to alchemy. An essential feature of knowledge brokers is that they understand the cultures of both worlds. Often, this role is performed by third-sector organisations of various types (from lobbyists to think tanks to respected research funders). Some academics can transcend this divide. A few universities employ specialist knowledge brokers, but their long-term effectiveness is often constrained by low status, insecure contracts and lack of career pathways. Whoever plays this crucial intermediary role, it appears that it is currently under-resourced within and beyond the university system.

Two alternative ways of conceptualising interaction between academics and non-academics to influence policy have been proposed. The more conservative model relies on a boundary organisation or knowledge intermediary who sits between the two worlds of science and policy, each of which retains its integrity and stability. The more radical model involves co-production of knowledge through the merging of these two realms in ways which interfere with conventional research practices and roles of researchers, such that science goes beyond providing information and becomes involved in the process of governance itself. Neither of these alternatives is inherently better than the other, and various types of collaboration may be appropriate in different circumstances and for different partners.’

Lots of good case studies from around the UK, and some standout quotes:

Influence is born of trust and relationships, not having a clever paper:

‘Senior civil servants value academics’ general expertise and accumulated knowledge of their field as much as, or Interaction fig 2more, than they do specific research outputs.

‘Research use is emerging as a largely social process, with interaction and relationships being key factors in determining how evidence gets used and applied in practical settings… in this context, it is unsurprising that network-based approaches, which support direct engagement and dialogue between researchers and users, are proving to be particularly effective.’

Linked to this, the research identifies the disproportionate influence of a few nodal individuals and institutions that act as ‘interlockers’:

‘Organisations such as lobby groups and think tanks are the nodes connected to one another through a relatively small number of individuals described as interlockers who act as bridges between these organisations. Interlockers have multiple positions sequentially and concurrently as trustees or council members for each other’s organisations, writing, speaking and being members of panels at each other’s events.’

Best suggestion? Embedded Gateways:

‘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.

Some university websites are searchable by keyword, or provide a list of ‘experts’ by topic and these may be of some help. However, the most helpful innovation is an embedded gateway. This offers an easy-to-access portal (an email address or phone number) for the public to make an initial approach and for their interest to be passed on by a knowledge-broker to the most relevant researchers in the university for action and reply. Some requests will be simple to respond to (‘Is there any research on the impact of rural school closures?’) and only require a reply email with an attachment or weblink. Others may be more substantial, such that a conversation begins which might lead to

GSDRC homepage
GSDRC homepage

a joint funding application, for example.’

In the development sector, the nearest thing to an embedded gateway is the GSDRC, run by Birmingham. They do brilliant literature and evidence reviews on a range of topics, drawing evidence from both academic literature and and non-academic institutions. That raises the important question of whether gateways should just focus on pimping a particular university’s research (which simplifies the funding model – they just become a part of the outreach function), or should range more widely, acting as a public good, in which case they will have to be separately funded (like GSDRC, which largely relies on DFID).


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13 Responses to “How can Academics and NGOs work together? Some smart new ideas”
  1. Allan Moolman

    ‘The more radical model involves co-production of knowledge through the merging of these two realms in ways which interfere with conventional research practices and roles of researchers, such that science goes beyond providing information and becomes involved in the process of governance itself.’
    I think we have gone in this direction already without mediating the inherent power of the ‘expert researcher’ over the ‘humble practitioner’. And so, we have in many instances, research recommendations that are treated as fact rather than theses to be tested. The result – highly conceptual programmes going to scale too quickly on the basis of ‘expert’ opinions that are very rarely mediated by real world limitations or experience.
    Like with all good development if we manage the power relations in the collaborations and we should get better results.

  2. Hi Duncan! We’ve met in the past through my work at CCIC in Canada. I am now working with a national platform for Cdn academics in humanities and social sciences. I like the blog! Wondering if I may repost on our blog series? Lots of discussion in Canada on ‘evidence-based policy making’ and this is highly relevant of course to that! Cheers-Gauri

  3. Robin Ford

    As a public servant, now consulting, I have long been very aware of the waste of resources that the report addresses. I/we rarely used academic work, mainly because (1) we were not aware of it, (2) turgid writing (that is very off-putting to people who are under severe time pressure), or (3) the failure of the research to take into account real world issues like political constraints, budgets, etc so that any conclusions lacked credibility or usefulness.

    Having said that, we also failed to eg reach out to academics, to support them in their research, to explain our needs (when that mattered), or to be sufficiently open and transparent. Nevertheless, there are some great examples of collaboration (with appropriate academic independence) with excellent results – eg,

  4. This is an excellent post and highlights issues I have been discussing in the Pacific context for a long time. I am increasingly recognised as a knowledge broker and have been able to achieve some small victories and helped influence thinking by governments, development partners and regional organisations in some small ways. The biggest hurdle is that institutions that require or will benefit from work of this type are unable or unwilling to invest in it. Until it is acknowledged that work of this type requires a particular blend of skills, experience and personal attributes (as opposed to it just being another word for comms) the full potential of investment in research will not be achieved, which begs the question about how committed donors and others really are to ‘value for money’.

  5. Thanks for your post Duncan.
    Having worked in NGOs and in academia, this is an issue I often deal with. What doesn’t seem to be covered so much in the report is the incentives dimension of the issue. Within academic institutions there are few real incentives for communication of research to practitioners in NGOs or elsewhere. It might be a nice thing to do but the real career points to be gained are through academic publishing. Meanwhile, within NGOs there are often incentives toward moving quickly and loudly – reaching as many people as possible, and influencing them – without necessarily having time for the slower academic engagement. So this makes it challenging. Real collaborative networks need to be built mostly from goodwill on the different sides rather than it being part of the ‘real work’. So I am all for greater collaboration between academics and NGOs but it might take some shifts in incentives to make it really move forward.

    • Duncan Green

      spot on Tamas. People have been talking about this for decades, so if it hasn’t happened there’s probably a reason for that, and as you say, incompatible incentives is probably at the heart of it. So then we need new institutions to tweak the incentives and make it possible for at least some collaboration – multistakeholder forums, the funding process (REF) etc have tried, but the resistance from both sides is deeply rooted

  6. An interesting report whose findings are consistent with those of study we funded a few years ago looking at these same issues in the three regions where we work: Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The study focused on university-think tank relations, so a somewhat narrower remit, but it did surface many of the same challenges and suggests ways to address them based on successful examples: getting incentives right; building cultures of collaboration; the value of flexible, core funding from funders; and investing in staff in both institutions to help them develop the skills necessary to make collaborations work. The synthesis report can be accessed here:

  7. Thanks, Duncan, for this post.

    I do not know, whether I do understand you correctly. In my reading you seem to suggest that “embedded gateways” are your preferred suggestion offered by the report to bridge the worlds of NGOs and science. To play devil’s advocate, why are you so timid here? Why not going for the more fundamental approach of questioning the way science is done at all? From the proposals referred to your in your blog entry, I find coproduction of knowledge a lot more promising avenue.

    Here is why: I do understand coproduction as a process in which colleagues from NGOs would be involved in those phases of doing research that seem relevant for them. This might end up in an involvement from the design of research to the analysis of findings aiming at influencing policy and practice. I would argue that having colleagues from NGOs involved in the design of the research is pivotal to achieve impact and avoid that research is tailored towards often more narrowly defined needs of a particular research field. From my experience, it is this type of involvement that would make research contributing to localised search processes that are highlighted by “Doing Development Differently” and others. Or to make research contributing to the question of “How Change Happens”… A gateway would make access easier to research that is already available whether it is relevant for decision makers in NGOs or not.

    Building on the crucial point of incentive structures mentioned above: This is arguably a very small step in this direction (and only related to the research world), the Horizon2020 funding programme of the European Commission has began to explicitly call for coproduction of knowledge.

  8. Susan Watkins

    ‘Evidence from university research was the most trusted (always or usually trusted by 68% of respondents), but one of the least-used sources of evidence (frequently used by only 35% of respondents).” But this doesn’t speak to what I think are larger issues: What is the evidence that big donors read the university research [note that “trust” was self-reported”] ? And even if they do, what’s the evidence that they are influenced by it? And even if they are influenced and they proceed to fund INGO interventions based on that research, what’s the evidence that the “evidence implementers” in-country will go along with it? A colleague, Ann Swidler, and I have a forthcoming book , based on more than a decade of fieldwork in Malawi, with a focus on HIV prevention and management: “A Frustrated Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa.” We learned that even though Malawi is a highly donor-dependent country, the implementers, from the National AIDS Commission to the brokers who work on the ground in rural districts, have, and trust ( perhaps rightly, perhaps not), their own ideas about what projects are needed to address the AIDS epidemic. It’s a long way from the evidence producers, synthesizers and distributors/translators to what actually happens–it is very hard to do good at long distance. Sometimes the expected beneficiaries whom compassionate organizations are eager to help (in our case, villagers) do benefit, but often they don’t.

  9. Anita Makri

    I’m coming in to the discussion with some delay, but then again this isn’t an issue that’s going to go away soon. Thanks for an interesting post, Duncan. About 3 years ago I commissioned a collection of articles examining the overlaps between academic and NGO work (on SciDev.Net, here: Collaboration – or co-production – was actually one of the overarching messages; not unconnected to an obstacle that hasn’t been highlighted here, which is that of different epistemologies and timeframes for knowledge production in the two sectors. I.e. you need a process to negotiate those differences. Another message was that funders need to incentivise such collaboration, and that local/Southern NGOs have a role to play so should be part of that picture.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Anita, I was recently wondering if any funders already/should go the extra mile on this and have calls for hybrid programme and research grants. Currently programme funding may ask for a bit of research (normally via MEL), and research grants ask for research to study programme work funded through other channels, but I haven’t heard of any that bridge the gap – any examples?

  10. Anita Makri

    I agree that funders need to go the extra mile – it could be in the form of specific calls for hybrid programmes, or to have such collaborations as a component (though that could breed tokenism). One example that comes to mind immediately is ELRHA. I believe their funding is exclusively for partnerships between humanitarian and academic organisations.

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