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Blog: Beyond knowledge exchange: remodelling the relationship between academics and the third sector

Our Convenor Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust talks about ‘pracademics’, third sector collaboration with academics - opportunity costs and real costs.

There has been a flurry of interest and attention on the relationship between academics and the third sector in the past few months. The interest in working together is not itself new, knowledge exchange has been big business in universities for many years and there are many ‘pracademics’ who combine academic research with roles in charities and other organisations to give them a combination of theoretical and real world knowledge.

But it is clear that pressures on both academia and the third sector are mounting for there to be greater collaboration. Academics, particularly in the social sciences, are being challenged to show the impact that they have on policy and practice. Meanwhile, the third sector is being challenged to ‘up its game’ on the quality of evidence of impact.

Two recently published reports ask us to go beyond a basic understanding of the relationship to explore the extent to which the two sectors can work together to co-produce knowledge, and by doing so have a greater impact on policy and practice.

In March, Evaluation Support Scotland launched a new guide on Collaborating with Academics which aims to support people in the third sector who seek greater collaboration with universities.   As the ESS guide shows, there is much that each can learn from the other. We can plug gaps in each other’s knowledge and experience: academics can bring a rigour and independent view to the third sector; the third sector brings tacit knowledge of how things happen in practice, be they the competing demands on services providers or the gaps between our hopes for the policies and practices we recommend and the reality of (almost always) flawed implementation. 

But there are pitfalls too.  Too often the third sector is brought in too late by academics, once funding has already been secured by the university department and the key aims and objectives of projects are set.  This brings opportunity costs and real costs.  Opportunity costs in that the research could well have been improved by prior engagement with non-academic experts.  And real costs, because too often the third sector is asked to contribute time, skills and access on an ‘in-kind’ basis.  Of course there are benefits to organisations and their users of taking part, but in a tough financial environment it is hard to justify taking staff away from delivery to contribute to academic research.

There are difficulties too in terms of culture and approach, academic research takes considerable time which is often out of kilter with the needs of the third sector.  The guide suggests some very practical ways around these difficulties.  As you would expect from ESS, these focus on understanding what outcomes you seek and what the constraints are on both sides. Understanding each other’s ways of working and being clear about expectations can reduce the impact of divergent approaches. 

The audience for the ESS guide is the third sector itself, and the guide steers away from making conclusions about what academics could do differently.  While it was being developed by the team at ESS I was working in my ‘day job’ at Carnegie UK Trust on a separate but complementary project.  Interaction: How can academics and the third sector work together to influence policy and practice?  explored the shared agenda for the third sector and universities.  Written by an academic, Professor Mark Shucksmith, the report highlights the gap between the resources we spend on academic research and its impact on public policy and challenges academics to see their relationship with the third sector as far more collaborative than merely a dissemination route for research findings.

It is clear from both reports that there are great opportunities for the third sector and academia to work more collaboratively together and to draw on each other’s strengths.  In a time of complex social needs but reduced funding we must draw on the knowledge and expertise of all to find solutions for the public good.  

Collaborating with academics is a supplementary guide to Evidence for Success.  Download a copy of Evidence for Success and find out more about the Knowledge Translation Network.

Information for academics including case studies please click here.

Want to comment on this post please email Jane Marryat 

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