Funding transformative research: 10 key stages

Community member post by Flurina Schneider

Flurina Schneider (biography)

How can funding programmes maximize the potential of transformative research that seeks to make a real difference? How can funders support a more hands-on approach to societal challenges such as ecological crises? A group of Swiss transdisciplinary researchers and funding-agency staff identified 10 overlapping stages and their key ingredients. The stages are also described in the figure below.

  1. Preparation of the funding programme. From the start, funding programme leaders should seek dialogue with all those concerned with the societal challenge, including decision-makers and affected communities. Only then should they create a formal programme description and announce a call for project proposals—while still leaving room for grantees (those who receive grants) to adapt the framing of problems and goals.
  2. Project proposal elaboration. Transformative research requires teams including academics and societal collaborators from diverse backgrounds. These teams need time to form, build trust, and identify knowledge gaps and priorities for change. Ideally, teams will include senior scientists versed in collaborating beyond academia, but such people remain rare.
  3. Funder interactions with applicants. The competitive nature of research funding often leads funding programme staff to keep applicants at arm’s length. But nurturing a young field like transformative science often requires a more hands-on approach. This might include organizing training in transdisciplinary research, and giving pre-proposal advice to applicants about how to strengthen their methods or teams.
  4. Project selection. This crucial stage determines the parts – projects, subtopics, approaches, and budgetary framework – that will build the greater sum of the research programme. Therefore, emphasis must be placed on evaluation criteria and procedures that do justice to the transdisciplinary character of research proposals. The projects selected should contribute to both scientific and societal aims. A mix of projects is crucial, with those taking a narrower disciplinary approach complemented by others involving an exchange with society.
  5. Research activities. Once the projects begin and research gets underway, project leaders may need to adapt their studies in response to local people’s concerns or the realities of day-to-day work with collaborators from diverse disciplines and social and cultural backgrounds. Funding programme staff can aid this process and ensure wider programme coherence in several ways (see 6, 7, and 8 below).
  6. Joint agenda setting. Ideally, programme leaders will hold workshops early on that enable approved projects to jointly fine-tune targeted problems and goals with a view to synthesizing their eventual findings or impacts. Researchers can be encouraged to maximize synergies, for example by addressing different parts of the same global value chain. As the goals of the selected projects might not fully fit the predefined programme goals, the latter can also be adapted accordingly.
Conceptual model of a transdisciplinary research funding programme involving 10 key stages (Schneider et al., 2019)
  1. Networking and synthesis. As research progresses, it is helpful for funding programme heads to periodically convene researchers from all the projects to ensure continuing exchange and relationship building. Special ‘synthesis projects’ can be launched to ensure that transformation-oriented activities occur at the programme level, such as public information campaigns or the creation of widely accessible tools for disseminating results and visualizing data.
  2. Funder interactions with projects. Funding programme leaders have several ways to enhance projects as the research progresses. One example is using annual reports to foster self-reflection among the project teams on their progress towards scientific and societal goals, necessary changes required in the project, adaptation to real-world contexts, and lessons from transdisciplinary collaborations. Another example is that targeted training can be offered to foster skills in areas that science curricula often overlook, such as communication and public engagement. Finally, project visits by programme staff can help clarify remaining concerns.
  3. External communication. Transdisciplinary research is ideally suited to accessible knowledge products, including decision-support tools (eg., scenarios for climate change and adaptation), policy briefs, apps, and videos. Products should respond to societal collaborators’ needs and desires. Funding programme leaders should also strive to create spaces for mutual learning by all those concerned with the societal challenge. These might include discussions bringing together scientists, policymakers and the public. Funders should also develop ‘successor structures’ to carry on the programme’s work.
  4. Programme conclusion and impact evaluation. Societal transformations take time. As well as mandating final project reports, funding programme leaders should fund longer-term programme-level evaluations. These follow-ups can provide valuable information about what works or doesn’t work to effect transformation.

Transformative science requires transformative science policy. We highlight how the architecture of funding programmes could be enhanced to support research that prioritizes societal impacts. What do you think? Do you have experience with funding practices like those outlined above? If so, how effective are they? Do you have other suggestions for how funding programmes could better support transformative change?

To find out more:
Schneider, F., Buser, T., Keller, R., Tribaldos, T. and Rist, S. (2019). Research funding programmes aiming for societal transformations: Ten key stages. Science and Public Policy, scy074: 1-16. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Flurina Schneider PhD is an integrative geographer and head of the Land Resources Cluster at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland. Her research focuses on sustainability, justice, and human well-being in relation to land and water resources. She is particularly interested in how science, knowledge co-production and participation can contribute to sustainability transformations..

What makes government policy successful?

Community member post by Jo Luetjens, Michael Mintrom and Paul ’t Hart

Jo Luetjens (biography)

There is considerable pressure on researchers to show that their work has impact and one area in which impact is valued is government policy making. But what makes for a successful government policy? What does it take to achieve striking government performance in difficult circumstances or the thousands of taken-for-granted everyday forms of effective public value creation by and through governments?

Michael Mintrom (biography)

We used four dimensions to assess levels of success:

  • Successful programmatic performance is about designing smart programs that will really have an impact on the issues they are supposed to tackle and delivering those programs in such a manner that they produce social outcomes that are valuable.
  • Successful process management relates to how policy design, decision-making and delivery are organised and managed, and whether these processes contribute to not only the policy’s effectiveness and efficiency but also to the sense of procedural justice among key stakeholders and the wider public.
  • Successful attainment of political legitimacy of a policy involves the extent to which both the social outcomes of policy interventions and the manner in which they are achieved are seen as appropriate by relevant stakeholders and accountability forums.
  • Successful endurance is about maintaining high performance and legitimacy over time through embedded learning in program (re)design and delivery.
Paul ’t Hart (biography)

We commissioned 20 up-close, in-depth case-study accounts of the genesis and evolution of stand-out public policy accomplishments in Australia and New Zealand across a range of sectors and challenges (Luetjens et al., 2019). Our case studies threw up six recurrent patterns of policy craftwork.

  1. Successful public policies tend to address a problem that was well defined and broadly acknowledged at the outset of the policy development process.
    1. For example, Australia’s Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) responded to a strong desire to expand the number of school-leavers attending university but was devised in such a way that the flow of benefits was not skewed towards more privileged groups in society.
  2. Successful policies rested on conceptually coherent, evidence-informed advice which also paid attention to implementation realities. They were not made ‘on the run’ but carefully developed, debated, and refined over a period of time.
    1. For example, the economic reforms in New Zealand in the 1980s were propelled by Treasury advice that was devised over a lengthy period and in a way that placed significant weight on intellectual coherence.
  3. Champions and stewards are key, not just during the design and decision-making phase, but equally critically during the implementation phase.
    1. A powerful example of this is provided by the New Zealand case of Treaty of Waitangi Settlements. Here, a policy position asserted by a Labour Government was maintained by the incoming National Government. It was steady leadership of the responsible Minister in that government that was crucial to forming and embedding its institutions and processes. This ministerial stewardship continued for years despite the policy frequently being the focus of public disquiet about the cost to tax payers.
  4. Astute policy advocates have their bottom drawers well stocked so that their proposed policies can be fitted to the crisis of the hour.
    1. For example, gun control schemes had been in development in Australia for quite some time, but only when a horrendous mass shooting occurred in Tasmania was there a political impetus to adopt them. The policy response in Australia to the HIV/AIDS epidemic represents another instance of a crisis serving as a lever to create momentum for nascent but hitherto not yet influential policy communities and policy paradigms.
  5. Virtually all policies we studied survived changes of government from leadership by the party that gave it initial support to a party that once opposed it.
    1. New Zealand’s Nuclear Free policy offers a good illustration. In 2007, on the twentieth anniversary of the law, the National Party’s spokesperson for foreign affairs conceded that “the retention of this legislation that is called iconic, and that is symbolic of our independence of thought and judgment in international affairs, is not in question” – a far cry from that party’s vociferous opposition to it back in 1987.
  6. Implementation challenges dog any major policy initiative, but when policymakers persevere, learn from experience, and adjust their approaches accordingly, they may reap the benefits.
    1. In the case of efforts to make Melbourne a more liveable city, there were various challenges which meant that implementation occurred in a slow, incremental fashion. Yet, when people started to see the benefits of the implementation efforts, assessments of the overall initiative grew far more positive. Likewise, the introduction of water markets in Australia had its fair share of frustrations. Indeed, some of those frustrations remain, but overall this effort has now come to be viewed as making the best of a bad situation.

Understanding what makes policy successful can help researchers more effectively plan the questions and issues they investigate, as well as to be more savvy about their interactions with policy makers and the policy process.

What has your experience been with successful policy making and the role that research plays in identifying and fostering it?

To find out more:
Luetjens, J., Mintrom, M. and ’t Hart, P. (eds.) (2019). Successful Public Policy: Lessons From Australia and New Zealand. ANU Press: Canberra, Australia (Online – open access):

Biography: Jo Luetjens is a doctoral candidate at the Utrecht University School of Governance in the Netherlands. Her research interests include efforts to improve public sector performance and efficiency, the politics of policy reform and successful change management.

Biography: Michael Mintrom PhD is professor of Public Sector Management at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He holds a joint appointment as the Monash Chair of ANZSOG (Australia and New Zealand School of Government), where he serves as Academic Director of the Executive Master of Public Administration degree. His recent research has examined policy entrepreneurship, teamwork in the policy process, the creation of organisational cultures of excellence, and the assessment of public policies as investments.

Biography: Paul ’t Hart PhD is professor of public administration at the Utrecht University School of Governance and the Netherlands School of Public Management in The Hague. His research interests include highly successful public policies, organisations and collaborations, political and public service leadership, crisis politics and crisis governance, and political-administrative relations.

Managing uncertainty in decision making: What can we learn from economics?

Community member post by Siobhan Bourke and Emily Lancsar

Siobhan Bourke (biography)

How can researchers interested in complex societal and environmental problems best understand and deal with uncertainty, which is an inherent part of the world in which we live? Accidents happen, governments change, technological innovation occurs making some products and services obsolete, markets boom and inevitably go bust. How can uncertainty be managed when all possible outcomes of an action or decision cannot be known? In particular, are there lessons from the discipline of economics which have broader applicability? Continue reading

Collaboration: From groan zone to growth zone

Community member post by Carrie Kappel

Carrie Kappel (biography)

What is the groan zone in collaboration? What can you do when you reach that point?

As researchers and practitioners engaged in transdisciplinary problem-solving, we know the value of diverse perspectives. We also know how common it is for groups to run into challenges when trying to learn from diverse ideas and come to consensus on creative solutions.

This challenging, often uncomfortable space, is called the groan zone. The term comes from Sam Kaner’s diamond model of participation shown in the figure below. After an initial period of divergent thinking, where diverse ideas are introduced, groups have to organize that information, focus on what’s most important, and make decisions in order to move forward into the phase of convergent thinking. Continue reading

Linking collective impact to the characteristics of open living systems

Community member post by Lewis Atkinson

Lewis Atkinson (biography)

How can communities most effectively achieve collective impact, moving from fragmented action and results to collective action and deep, durable systems change? In particular, what can those seeking to understand the characteristics required for collective impact learn from the characteristics of open living systems?

In this blog post I link five characteristics for collective impact, based on Cabaj and Weaver (2016) with 12 characteristics of open living systems drawn from Haines (2018, building on the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy). Continue reading

Improving the i2Insights blog: Your ideas are welcome!

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer and Peter Deane

As a reader, are there aspects of this i2Insights blog that you would like to see changed? Do you have specific suggestions for improvements? Are there things that work well and that you would like to see continue?

We are currently reviewing how to improve the blog and how easily the resources it provides can be found. Your input will help us think about changes to incorporate and how to use our time in producing the blog to maximum effect. We briefly set the context for the blog and then pose a series of questions that outline the changes we are considering. All input is welcome. You can address one or more of the questions below or raise other issues. You can post in the comments section or contact us privately via: Continue reading