Investing in change through research funding

By Petra Lundgren

author_petra-lundgren
Petra Lundgren (biography)

How do funders think about investing in research that is intended to lead to change?

This blog post is written from the perspective of a research funder. More specifically it is based on reflections and lessons learned during five years managing and directing strategic research programs at a not-for-profit foundation, investing in science that would benefit the health and resilience of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Our funding mandate was to include research in a larger body of work towards a broader vision of change. This therefore provided the basis of my work and helped me shape the view that the funder has a big and critical role to play.

In the research that my organisation funded, it was important to both define and deliver impact beyond that of classic academic achievement. This requires broader engagement, consultation and co-design considerations by funders and researchers alike.

In particular, addressing multifaceted challenges that deliver impact to society, the economy, the environment, and culture is complex, both to design as well as in its delivery. As a funder, if you want to ensure your funding has a clear pathway to impact, you need to design for impact from the very start. The benefit of being the source of the funding is that you can write the rules of engagement and you have a lot of influence over how programs are designed and delivered.

My key reflections and learnings as a funder can be encapsulated as follows:

  • Be strategic about what you fund – if you want to invest in change, then design for change.
  • You make the rules – make the design process compulsory.
  • Change is driven by communities and civil society; hence their voices and representation need to be put firmly into the pathway to impact planning of any research program that aspires to have impact beyond scientific discovery.
  • Knowing who the influencers are (those who are likely to drive change) is critical. There is no point in funding the development of a solution that needs a policy change, unless the policy maker is part of the journey.
  • Be inclusive in your stakeholder mapping and don’t shy away from opposing views; consensus is not a realistic goal.
  • Don’t limit your funding to just the research. Instead, fund a team that spans the entire pathway to impact and never underestimate the need for communication tools and engagement tools, as well as the need to put money towards community and stakeholder activities, such as time, design and dissemination input, and thought leadership.
  • Use program management tools, such as theory of change and program logic, and invest in developing a proper monitoring and evaluation framework. Although not used often in research, these tools are extremely helpful as they force everyone to focus on the end game rather than their own, often quite specific, research field.
  • Sometimes the best solution is not the most obvious one, so be prepared to change your approach and involve other disciplines and researchers. In addition, be prepared to let some ideas and solutions go, even if they seemed right at the start.
  • Don’t fund a single solution, no matter how compelling it sounds at the start.
  • The best laid plans do not guarantee a successful outcome, so if impact is the driver, be prepared to stay involved.

Investing in change goes beyond investing in research, it is more holistic than that. It also needs actual program management, so be prepared to include that in the overall cost of the project or to stay involved to provide that service through your organisation. While there is nothing as satisfying as assembling, funding and driving a diverse team towards success and true impact, don’t expect it to be easy!

I would be interested to hear from other funders investing in change. Do these lessons resonate? It would also be interesting to hear from researchers and research leaders seeking to make change happen. Are there other things that you would like funders to do? Do you see problems associated with any of my suggestions and, if so, how would you deal with them?

Biography: Petra Lundgren PhD is an Innovation Broker at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. She brings together relevant disciplinary research capabilities from across the university and beyond to help shape major transdisciplinary research collaborations to solve global challenges, transform societies and attract partner investment.

5 thoughts on “Investing in change through research funding”

  1. Interesting post and thanks for sharing your ideas. I would like to share my experience when I was working at Iran National Science Foundation. We faced several constraints when trying to implement change in how we funded. One constraint was the resistance we faced from the researchers themselves, specially the more settled ones. They thought that the urge to change has be bi-directional and dialogic, not just a policy injected by the funder. The second constraint was the system we had for science communication. We didn’t have a multi-dimensional system to make the research findings available to the public. So the researchers thought even if their research had impact, the public would never hear about it. What we did to address these constraints, we tried to create channels of communication between different stakeholders. In so doing, we wanted to make sure that researchers and their say were also involved in the decision making process. We hired someone who was an expert in communicating research findings and we tried to invest more. I would say it improved a lot of things. Petra, do you have any personal recollections for the constraints I mentioned?

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  2. These lessons do indeed resonate, and speak to reframing the role for research funders. Our work was customarily to identify knowledge gaps and run competitions, selecting projects based on traditional notions of academic excellence. In contrast, funders can also explore real-world demand and foster cooperation, encouraging co-creation of proposals based on broadening notions of excellence, including equitable partnerships & their potential for impact.

    Funders do “write the rules of engagement” and can also rewrite assessment criteria to consider the strength of collaboration and their positioning for use. Challenging proponents to identify impact is one step, yet what constitutes impact -and the path to it- can evolve over time. At their essence, a theory of change lays out assumptions to be tested, a basis for learning and pursuing impact.

    Petra argues for funding teams that span across the entire pathway to impact. This resonates with a broader understanding of capacity beyond the mere conduct of science to encompasses a spectrum of skills connecting with its use in society (see http://hdl.handle.net/10625/58680). The next generation of research projects can also value and encourage novel partnerships that bring together the diverse actors needed to identify solutions & take action. This includes not only skilled researchers from different disciplines, but also expertise in knowledge brokering, and the perspectives of various users.

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  3. I started responding individually to the comments by Vivi Stavrou and Ricard Ramirez but came to realise that it all forms part of a very similar response. I will start by saying that it is both a great privilege and a great responsibility to reflect on this from the perspective of the funder and also to acknowledge that the mission of the foundation I worked for was not to fund research; it was to fund initiatives that improved the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef. Within that scope, my role was to ensure that the investments were grounded in good science. However, that specific set up was something that evolved over time through a realisation that when you focus your funding solely on the research, there is no guarantee that there is an impetus to go beyond academic impact (as per your comment Vivi).

    To give you an example of how this evolved Ricardo. In 2008 the Foundation raised and received funds earmarked for research that would improve the resilience of coral reefs responding to climate change. At the beginning of that program of work, a lot of very good, very innovative research projects were funded, from locating genes linked to thermal tolerance in corals to developing polymer films to reflect sunlight off reefs to reduce heat stress, to modelling water quality across the entire Great Barrier Reef. However, as the years went by, it became increasingly evident that the projects that had the greatest impact were the programs where a clear pathway to impact was articulated in collaboration with key stakeholders and managers at the very start. As a result, the funding model evolved to become more focused on solving the larger challenge rather than funding individual research solutions. In that model, science became one part of a more holistic methodology, thus ensuring a more collaborative and adaptive approach to program design.

    Current efforts to develop reef restoration techniques for example, combine ecosystem research, engineering, traditional owners, the tourism industry, citizen science, marine park managers, recreational users and many others, ensuring that any interventions that are funded or proposed have proper cultural and social licence, are in step with policy developments, engage and encourage behavioural change and custodianship and address the broader issue of climate change and other factors that impact the capacity of the reef to recover and to support ecological as well as socio-economic resilience. I agree with you Ricardo, the funder does not always know best, hence the value of co-design and collaboration and to ensure that you develop an adaptive learning approach.

    It is also worth noting that funding a program of work, aimed at solving a specific problem is a different approach to how one would fund discovery or emerging research. It is also relevant to point out that funding is often limited, so designing within a budget is another important consideration. Sometimes the budget will only allow part of the solution, putting another level of consideration and consultation on the table, what is the minimal viable product or outcome? And is that a good enough starting point?

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  4. I would appreciate reading about examples that follow the key reflections. In our experience, the engagement of policy makers is not straight forward, especially when it comes to new and emerging fields of applied research. In addition, the high turn over of decision makers in policy circles often means an erosion of commitment to longer-term research projects. I also wonder about pre-determining and imposing a design process: it suggests that the funder knows best (not our experience) and making it compulsory challenges the importance of collaborative and evolving research pathways (so necessary when dealing with complex and dynamics topics).

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  5. I would love feedback on this learning, “Don’t limit your funding to just the research. Instead, fund a team that spans the entire pathway to impact and never underestimate the need for communication tools and engagement tools, as well as the need to put money towards community and stakeholder activities, such as time, design and dissemination input, and thought leadership”. Such an investment by research funders would be a real committment to transdisciplinary collaboration from design through to application, and possibly even further to the evaluation of the application. But can you fund such a diverse, complex programme involving different leadership and skills sets at different times along a longer than usual project cycle? My experience is that research funders stick with funding activties that end when the invariably academically-based and led research phase is completed (where ever the research may be placed along the project timeline).

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