Further learning from our work with the British Science Association

Since 2022 Collaborate has been supporting the British Science Association (BSA) to understand what a healthy system for public engagement with research looks like and how to develop and support a funding system that enables this. By a healthy system, we mean one which is equitable and inclusive, where power is shared between communities and researchers, and they work collaboratively together toward long-term, sustainable benefits for communities. 

We’ve been acting as a learning partner to the collaborations of local partners working in Hull, Oldham, the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and Northwest Northern Ireland to develop the infrastructure to support a healthy system through The Ideas Fund infrastructure funding programme. In this third blog in the series, a year on from our last update, we share more of our collective learning so far.

Over the last 18 months we’ve held check-ins and workshops with partners from the four places to understand their progress and learning. Key priorities emerging include changes to processes such as ethics and contracts, and working together to build a shared language for this work. New coalitions and collaborations are forming and awareness of the value of the ambition for a healthier, more equitable system and the approaches that are enabling this, continues to grow, along with the appetite to further this work. We’ve been particularly learning from those who are focusing specifically on building the infrastructure to embed change beyond individual projects. But alongside them, communities and researchers involved in The Ideas Fund community grants are identifying opportunities and getting involved in making the changes they see as being needed to support and sustain the change they’ve started to see in the longer term. For example, the Highlands and Islands’ Community Knowledge Matters network includes active Ideas Fund grantees in their working groups to explore consultation mapping and co-priority setting. 

At our most recent workshop, we invited those involved from each place to reflect on what they’ve learned in the first year of the infrastructure work, looking for similarities and differences in their approaches and experiences. Through these discussions many insights emerged about what it looks and feels like in practice, and learning about what it takes to fund and support it. We share some of the key insights below.

  • Neither universities nor communities are homogenous entities, but nebulous, de-centralised micro-systems with multiple different constituencies who value different things and operate in different ways. This means that it’s possible to make lots of progress and change with a particular community or in a particular department, but still feel stuck or hit a limit in other parts of these micro-systems. Therefore, the flexibility to build collaborations over time and to follow where there is energy and appetite for change is essential. As part of this, giving space for people to work flexibly, coming into and out of the work at different times and being compensated appropriately is really important. The BSA built this flexibility into their expectations about project planning and budgets which has supported this to be effective.
  • People relate to people, not to institutions, so relationships are critical. Investing upfront in creating trusting relationships as a core foundation of effective collaboration has been incredibly important. We’ve seen how the connections that are formed through this work proliferate and go on to create more opportunities and bring more people in. For example, one place mentioned that the relationships  Development Coordinators built with the university’s Knowledge Exchange team through The Ideas Fund have enabled connections with students, researchers and communities for other opportunities and projects as well, ‘thickening the soup’ of connection between the university and the community in multiple ways. 
  • The places are also uncovering many opportunities in the wider local context to connect to other partners and sectors who are thinking about partnerships to enable more participation and power for communities. But with limited capacity to invest in all of these opportunities, choices have to be made about where to focus their time and energies. Experience so far suggests once again that having the flexibility to follow the energy and go deeper into a few key relationships to really cement trust is an effective strategy that pays off over time, rather than trying to force connections that aren’t yet ready, or trying to spread too thinly across multiple opportunities.
  • Much of the practice of this work is about creating and holding spaces for people who are interested in supporting community-led researcher collaborations to come together to connect, share, learn and make progress on shared goals together. This includes those involved in The Ideas Fund as well as wider partners from community development, policy and the public sector. The Development Coordinators in each place are very skilled in creating and holding these spaces. It’s an incredibly relational role, weaving together connections to foster relationships, understanding, support learning and build trust, often acting as a translator between two very different worlds. At a time of incredibly stretched capacity, particularly in the community sector, this facilitative role is even more important. It also includes very practical elements such as forward planning, communication, and capturing and progressing actions between meetings to ensure other people can make the most of their involvement. From the outside, this activity could look like a traditional ‘top-down’ approach of doing for or to people, but the practitioners hold a strong ethos of performing this role in service of the group and are sensitive to signals of what they need. They’re also willing to reflect on and challenge their own role and practices to ensure they are acting in line with this. 
  • There is a proven appetite for the ambition and approach beyond those who are directly involved in The Ideas Fund. The practical experience of working on The Ideas Fund acts as a catalyst and leverage for further projects and funding opportunities. While it’s great to see the pride wider stakeholders and partners take in this work and their enthusiasm for it, this carries a risk of co-option or what one Development Coordinator calls ‘ethos decoration’ – the danger of saying all the right things but not following through in the practice. Encouraging and supporting more people to get involved in this kind of work is key to changing the system, but so too is protecting the principles and integrity of the work. This is a challenging path to navigate, particularly for those like the Development Coordinators who are acting as brokers operating between communities and universities. Their personal trust and credibility may feel at stake when entrenched power dynamics may limit their ability to influence what promises are made and whether they are followed through. 

Many of these insights from the experience on the ground are also reflected in our learning about the process of funding and supporting this work – in terms of how the BSA has operated as a funder and how we’ve tried to act as a learning partner. There have been ebbs and flows to our work as the places have progressed on their own timelines, and we too have sought to follow where the energy is in terms of determining where to focus our collective time and attention. Creating safe, learning-oriented spaces that enable connections and relationships to form and dedicated space for reflection has been key to our role. We too have been thinking deeply about what it means to hold these spaces well and in service of the group. 

It’s clear that resourcing this takes more than just money and time. The BSA are bringing not just their funding but their ethos and values as an essential force for change, with a genuine commitment to learning and collaboration that is felt by everyone involved.

We’re delighted to be continuing to support The Ideas Fund network and the BSA over the next four years as learning partner and look forward to learning and sharing more in future blogs.

This blog is part three of a series. You can read part one, two and four here:

Part one: Beyond project funding: How can funders nurture healthy systems?

Part two: Putting learning and collaboration at the heart of local systems change funding

Part four: Building infrastructure to empower communities: Principles for a new approach to community research ethics