By Kristine Lund
What can you do when a national funding umbrella organization asks you to add a new partner to a collaborative project, especially when that partner has a poor reputation for collaborating?
Here I share lessons based on my experience of leading a multi-million Euro grant, where two interdisciplinary language sciences laboratories, which had worked together successfully for 8 years, were preparing a bid for a 5-year continuation in funding. In the process of preparing that bid, our national umbrella organization suggested that a third language sciences laboratory that had strong links to neurosciences join the consortium.
Strategy 1: Try to make it work
Based on previous experience, neither of the two founding member labs wanted to accept the new collaborative partner. Although this third lab was very competent scientifically, some key members had proven during former collaborative projects to be very difficult partners from a social-relational point of view.
As project leader, my first reaction was to follow the wishes of the national umbrella organization and work to integrate this incoming lab while attempting to convince members of the two founding labs that gaining additional high-level competence was worth putting effort into solving relational difficulties. After all, refusing the national umbrella organization point-blank could have consequences for future hiring and funding possibilities.
But as I worked with the director of this incoming lab over a period of months, I began to change my mind, having witnessed a set of actions that illustrated specific roadblocks to building trust, necessary for good collaboration. The director:
- disrespected procedures established between us;
- misrepresented what happened in meetings;
- unilaterally corresponded with our national umbrella organization regarding the project;
- made unjustified demands on governance;
- criticized in bad faith the indicators of success of our project;
- attempted unjustifiably and without authority to rank disciplines within the project in terms of importance.
Strategy 2: Stop the forced collaboration and find an acceptable alternative scenario
My evolving understanding of how this director worked changed my view of the situation, so I decided to radically change my strategy and find a way to stop the integration of this third lab while proposing an alternative scenario that was acceptable for the national umbrella organization.
A key aspect of this strategy was taking the perspective of the national umbrella organization. For a start, their suggestion was reasonable from the national perspective in that funding should catalyze collaboration on shared themes and create new potential in an interdisciplinary space where participants could capitalize on being co-located in the same city. In addition, ours was the sole grant out of eleven originally-funded initiatives that had only two participating research labs. The other ten had many more laboratories, so one could argue that the resources be shared also from this perspective. That said, the original proposal was scientifically justified when the project was first submitted as only the two original labs had obtained the quality status (A+ rating) in language sciences, a necessary criterion to submit a project.
I did my own analysis of language sciences at the national level in order to find a way to position our project as a crucial scientific contributor to an area that was not yet developed. This was important strategically, as the goal of the national umbrella organization is to have separate, visible, identities of excellence in the country. I therefore proposed to bring a different laboratory into the consortium and develop our project at the crossroads of language science and computer science, a scientific niche that was not currently highly visible in the country.
I was able to do this because I personally had a long history of collaboration with this computer science lab, and so did some of my colleagues, so it was not difficult to write the newly proposed scientific orientation in a credible fashion. This choice had the additional, crucial benefit of moving our refunding proposal away from the nexus of neuroscience and linguistics (the main strength of the hostile laboratory), which was already well-covered by another consortium in another part of the country.
In summary the lessons learned are:
- Take the perspective of your national umbrella organization in order to understand funding constraints and goals on a level higher than your own;
- Perform an analysis of the relevant research space in order to determine niche areas for innovative research that are not yet occupied;
- Propose a desirable collaborative partner to add to the consortium, one that will help your project occupy one of these niche areas;
- Keep lines of communication open with local umbrella organizations and be aware of their concerns;
- Make sure this new partner enables you to gain the necessary support (in our case from local and regional leaders, as this helped in gaining support nationally).
How it all played out
The hostile lab broke up due to internal tensions.
We obtained continued funding and the two founding language science labs, along with the new computer science lab, have already developed four innovative projects that are now being evaluated by an international scientific advisory board. We are working toward the goal of gaining international visibility for innovative research at the crossroads of these disciplines in our region, thus aligning to the national umbrella organization’s strategy.
If you have experienced an attempted forced collaboration, did you use different strategies to foil it? Which ones? How successful were you? What do you think you could have done differently?
Biography: Kristine Lund PhD works for the French CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) as a Senior Research Engineer in the Interactions, Corpus, Apprentissages, Représentations (Interactions, Corpora, Learning, Representations) language sciences laboratory at the University of Lyon in France. Her work focuses on connecting systems of different orders (linguistic, cognitive, interactional, social) in order to better understand collaborative knowledge construction. She is Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of http://www.Cognik.net.