Developing the Seminar Series

By Jude Fransman and Kate Newman

The first hazy outlines of this seminar series were sketched through a chance encounter of two sleep-deprived mums on maternity leave in North London. We had known each other a little in the past – having both worked in different capacities for ActionAid and with IDS – and we had a lot in common: experience with participatory processes of knowledge-production; recently completed PhDs which explored, in very different ways, practitioner’s research/knowledge-building practices; strange, hybrid ‘pracademic’ identities; precarious part-time, contracts which pulled us both in ever-fragmented directions; and the usual challenges of juggling work with young families.

Over the next year we continued to meet in a variety of child-friendly venues to discuss the emerging but as yet unnamed ‘project’ we thought might respond to our shared interest and help us address some of our shared frustrations. During that time we were both lucky enough to move into relatively secure posts – Kate at Christian Aid and Jude at the Institute of Education and then later, the Open University. We were suddenly no longer schizophrenic postdocs but a legitimate INGO worker and academic with clear institutional responsibilities. With both of us now under pressure to provide ‘rigorous evidence’ and ‘impactful research’ a partnership across our institutions made more sense than ever.

The decision to apply for an ESRC seminar series was partly opportunistic (the timing was realistic and the requirements seemed manageable) and partly responsive to our shared agenda. We wanted to provide a dedicated space for collaborative thinking – primarily for practitioners who tend to lack time for such luxuries. And crucially, we also wanted to ensure that this thinking linked to the development of pragmatic strategies and resources for improving research partnerships and the type of ‘evidence’ that emerges from them. ESRC’s commitment to ‘engaged research’ seemed to resonate with our own ideas about collaborative processes. There had also been a recent surge of initiatives led by both NGOs and academic institutions: to broker and explore research partnerships; understand the politics of evidence in development work; and examine the dynamics of participation in collaborative processes of knowledge-production. Discussions with those involved soon confirmed a general interest in bringing these strands together: understanding the types of evidence that are valued in and produced through collaborative research processes with implications for who participates and how; and conversely, exploring how different patterns of participation might influence the nature of the evidence emerging from partnerships.

Fortunately for us, the groundwork had already been laid. Drawing largely on Kate’s extensive networks and understanding of the INGO sector, we spoke to a wide range of academics, practitioners, brokers, trainers, funders and policy-makers with experience or an interest in one or more of these interrelated areas. As well as benefiting from these rich sources of insight and expertise, we were constantly astounded by the levels of enthusiasm and support for our project. We soon had a team of nine ‘co-investigators’ from universities and INGOs with numerous others as well as some key broker institutions formally committed to supporting our process. All that remained was to submit an application and get the funding…

This was rather more challenging that we’d anticipated. For those of you unfamiliar with these application processes, the requirements were a lengthy series of character-limited boxes as well as a variety of supporting documents (a 2-page referenced ‘case for support’; ‘pathways to impact’ strategy; letters of support and full justification of resources) And all this for a very measly £30k of funding which wouldn’t even stretch to covering staff-time for any of us.

Finding the time for the application alongside our day-jobs was tough and we ended up devoting most of our Christmas holidays to the task. Added to this, was our commitment to modeling a genuinely collaborative process, which meant collecting input and consensus from our fellow co-investigators and broader partners, all of whom were similarly time-starved. Inevitably, most of the feedback came from the academics who were at least able to justify the exercise as a legitimate academic activity. We collected input from the others mainly through informal conversations.

A second challenge was the issue of translating across our different jargons. We initially prepared two summaries of our research topic – one for academics (fully referenced and partly rehashed from previous bids that Jude had been working on) and the other for practitioners (relying on Kate’s understanding of the interests and priorities of the INGO sector and her experience in mobilizing networks.) But the real challenge came with trying to consolidate the various contributions into a single document. Jude tended to start by drafting a section, which Kate promptly rewrote in a more practitioner-friendly style. After a number of backs-and-forths we either agreed on a compromised version. Or didn’t! Where we didn’t, the academic version won out. The funder was academic and the largely impenetrable online application system (je-s) lent itself to a more academic formulation. We agreed that we would jump through the necessary semantic hoops to get the funding and then ‘rewrite’ our project more accessibly once we had.

Another challenge related to the implicit hierarchies of participants within the application. As an ‘early career researcher’ Jude had to go through a lengthy process of approval to apply as ‘principal investigator’ (PI) of the project. Despite ESRC’s commitment to including non-academics as ‘co-investigators’ all PI’s must be based at an academic institution. A second issue related to editorial access for non-academics on the online application system – another lengthy and complicated process which further restricted the input from the non-academics. And finally, further restrictions were imposed by the funding criteria: just one third of the budget could be allocated to non-academic participants.

Despite such challenges, frustrations and contradictions, we managed to submit a full application moments before the deadline and a mere six months later (!) received a letter of approval from ESRC. And that’s when the fun really started…

Our commitment to a genuinely collaborative process and to building on the initiatives and experience of others rather than ‘recreating the wheel’ has resulted in a lot of work: numerous meetings and discussions; creation of a dedicated space for input into the design and emerging themes of the series; appeals for a variety of case studies and different types of contribution; and a short survey to inform the design of the first seminar. This broad input is particularly important because of the restricted format of the series. In order to build trust and create a safe and critical space to interrogate sensitive experiences in research partnerships, the four ‘core’ seminars which form the bulk of the series will be restricted to a smaller group of regular attendees. It is therefore essential to establish strong links between these ‘closed’ discussions and the broader framings and outputs of the seminar series. We are still exploring the different ways we might manage this.

Despite the unpaid and often unrecognized work that has fuelled this project, the response by old and new friends alike has been quite overwhelming. According to our survey, the majority of participants were attracted to the series by an interest in improving their current practice in research partnerships. But other drivers included a conceptual interest in the topic, the desire to better understand different institutional perspectives and a broader interest in capacity-building within their organisations (strengthening research portfolios, improving skills, training others and improving research outputs.) Perhaps more surprisingly, an equally strong motivation was the desire to mobilise around a common project – developing a collective response to a common set of challenges. We are fortunate enough to have an emerging network of committed individuals and organisations to help us achieve this goal.

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