How to support research consortia

By Bruce Currie-Alder and Georgina Cundill Kemp

1. Bruce Currie-Alder (biography)
2. Georgina Cundill Kemp (biography)

A research consortium is a model of collaboration that brings together multiple institutions that are otherwise independent from one another to address a common set of questions using a defined structure and governance model. Increasingly consortia are also being joined in cross-consortia networks. How can connections be made across the institutions in individual consortia, as well as in cross-consortia networks, to ensure that such collaborations are more than the sum of their parts?

During 2014–2018 we were involved in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), which supported four transdisciplinary research consortia involving more than 40 institutions across 15 countries. CARIAA’s aim was to generate new knowledge and inform efforts that build resilience among vulnerable people living in hotspots of climate change. CARIAA contributed to over 20 local or national plans and strategies, as well as practical actions such as scaling-up of solar-powered irrigation pumps in Pakistan, adopting vulnerability and risk assessment by Botswana districts, and identifying investments in livestock value chains in Kenya.

Drawing on our experience, we share insights on organising, managing, and collaborating within this multiple-consortium programme. These insights also apply to individual consortia.


Selecting participants and fostering partnership are critical. Key lessons are:

  • Bring together diverse partners who complement each other in ways that collectively bridge science, geography and practice.
  • Each partner should bring some unique contribution, be it in skills and expertise, or their relationships and access to diverse communities and stakeholders.
  • Having diverse partners requires accommodating different levels of skills and resources, as well as diversity related to culture, gender, age, hierarchy, professions, and expertise.
  • Pay attention to what motivates each participant, whether this is the prospect of academic publication or achieving on-the-ground impact. Seek to create diverse outputs and forms of recognition that contribute to the goals and careers paths of different participants.
  • Connect early-career and more experienced participants to contribute to capacity building between institutions and generations.

Our experience suggests that the complexity of coordinating a consortium or a cross-consortium network increases with the number of participants and institutions. Key issues are:

  • Having partners working in dispersed locations and time zones, and operating in diverse cultural settings, creates difficulties for working together effectively.
  • Careful work planning is needed to define each partner’s role and encourage partners to be accountable to each other. Consider negotiating a formal agreement, or partnership charter, and revisit it over time.
  • Establish a shared knowledge platform to help foster a sense of identity and transparency. This includes cloud storage to access each other’s work across institutional firewalls, as well as regular newsletters to keep partners updated on activities across individual consortia and cross-consortia networks.


Our experience provided two key lessons:

  • Use nested activities to coordinate a consortium and cross-consortia collaboration, while also permitting a degree of autonomy for diverse activities.
  • Use funding to strengthen leadership at different levels.

In CARIAA nested levels served to clarify connections among the more than 450 individuals and 40 institutions (see figure below). The potentially overwhelming array of partners became more tractable through management fora at the program, consortium, and activity level. Together these nested levels created a pattern of relationships akin to a scale-free network. Managing such levels does require time and effort from principal investigators and coordinators. CARIAA learned that coordinators need to be empowered to effectively manage the day-to-day operations, including progress reporting, knowledge management, and communications.

To strengthen leadership at different levels, CARIAA provided funding directly to a set of core partners in each consortium. This was intended to provide a stronger role for these partners in administering financial resources yet risked weakening the role of the lead institution in managing the consortium. With time, we learned to encourage partners to share resources across the consortium and provide lead institutions with the financial updates needed to monitor progress and address any performance issues.

Network of CARIAA structure
A map of the consortia and institutions involved in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), showing the nested levels (source: Currie-Alder et al., 2019)


The three key lessons here were:

  • Provide a range of collaborative opportunities, be these face to face or online, and allow these to evolve and change over time.
  • Reserve project budget and time for unexpected synergies and opportunities.
  • Researchers should allocate a portion of their time for collaborative opportunities that only arise later in the research process.

Periodic but consistent intra- and cross-consortium meetings and learning reviews are vital for building relationships, identifying synergies, and pursuing research impact. CARIAA also created different ‘spaces’ including:

  • thematic working groups;
  • additional funding for emergent sub-projects; and,
  • common platforms for engaging stakeholders.

These opportunities provide a scaffolding for collaboration to arise through meeting places for smaller groups of participants to come together. Such spaces were allowed to evolve over time. For example, a working group initially formed to ensure robust climate science in each consortium, later pivoted to contribute original studies to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the implications of +1.5 degrees Celsius warming.

Evolution over time was not only allowed but planned for. For example, CARIAA funded additional work to integrate findings on gender and on migration, to distil and convey higher-level learning for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and ahead of the Global Compact for Migration. Budget and time were reserved to respond to such emergent opportunities. CARIAA set aside one-tenth of its programme funding for such collaborative spaces, defining the specific budget and activities later in the programme once the need became clear. Yet time can also be a limiting factor. Key people can easily become fully committed if they do not similarly allocate a portion of their time for collaborative opportunities that only arise later.


We can achieve greater ambition and impact from research effort through large-scale collaboration that pursues joint learning and research uptake across diverse research networks. Looking ahead, the rising ambition of climate action will continue to heighten such demands upon the scientific community.

Meeting this challenge requires careful attention to organising, managing, and collaborating across diverse partners at multiple scales to bridge science, geography and practice. This means new ways of working (and resourcing) research efforts, and funders (like ourselves) will be fundamental to making this possible. A key challenge in the years ahead will be how to ensure that the transaction costs involved in large scale collaborative research do not outweigh the benefits that researchers and practitioners alike see in their participation in such endeavours. We’ve learned that flexible funds and strong leadership can make such cross-consortia efforts impactful and worthwhile for those involved.

What has your experience been in leading or working in consortia and cross-consortia networks? Do our lessons resonate with yours? Do you have additional lessons to share?

To find out more:
Currie-Alder, B., Cundill Kemp, G., Scodanibbio, L., Vincent, K., Prakash, A. and Nathe, N. (2019). Building climate resilience in Africa and Asia: Lessons on organisation, management, and collaboration from research consortia. Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) working paper no. 24, International Development Research Centre: Ottawa, Canada; and, UK Aid: London, United Kingdom. (Online):

Cundill, G., Harvey, B., Tebboth, M., Cochrane, L., Currie-Alder, B., Vincent, K., Lawn, J., Nicholls, R.J., Scodanibbio, L., Prakash, A., New, M., Wester, P., Leone, M., Morchain, D., Ludi, E., DeMaria-Kinney, J., Khan, A. and Landry, M. E. (2018). Large-scale transdisciplinary collaboration for adaptation research: Challenges and insights. Global Challenges, 3, 4: 1700132. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Conway, D., Nicholls, R. J., Brown, S., Tebboth, M., Adger, W. N., Bashir, A., Biemans, H., Crick, F., Lutz, A. F., Safra De Campos, R., Said, M., Singh, C., Hassan Zaroug, M. A., Ludi, E., New, M. and Wester, P. (2019) The need for bottom-up assessments of climate risks and adaptation in climate-sensitive regions. Nature Climate Change, 17 June 2019: 1-9. (Online) (DOI):

Gonsalves, A. (2014). Lessons learned on consortium-based research in climate change and development. Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) working paper no. 1. International Development Research Centre: Ottawa, Canada; and, UK Aid: London, United Kingdom. (Online):

International Development Research Centre. (2019). 2012-2019 Novel insight briefs – Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA). CARIAA and International Development Research Centre (IDRC). (Online):

Biography: Bruce Currie-Alder is a Program Leader, Climate Partnerships at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, Canada. Bruce currently shapes the next generation of work beyond the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia. Bruce previously led the IDRC Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa. Over more than 15 years with IDRC, Bruce has worked on scaling-up participatory environmental management, fostering international collaboration on research funding, and tracing the evolution on thinking on international development.

Biography: Georgina Cundill Kemp is a Senior Program Officer at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, Canada. Georgina currently supports the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) which aims to help decision-makers in developing countries design and deliver climate compatible development. Previously Georgina was based at Rhodes University in South Africa, and Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA) in Chile, where she worked with rural communities on issues of land rights, governance, social learning and livelihoods for more than 10 years prior to joining the IDRC.

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