Encouraging collaborations between academics and civic bodies

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Academic-civic partnerships enhance connectivity across the UK. This blog looks at why that’s important for levelling up and what’s already working.

The recent Levelling up the United Kingdom white paper emphasised the role of research and innovation in addressing inequalities across the UK. In this blog I’ll be looking at academic-civic partnerships and why they are becoming increasingly important.

We’ll take a look at Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s current levels of activity including some examples. This will be done before proposing some ideas on how to support collaboration at this particular interface.

The white paper lays down a challenge and sets UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) a new organisational objective:

  • “… to deliver economic, social, and cultural benefits from research and innovation to all of our citizens, including by developing research and innovation strengths across the UK in support of levelling up”
  • “increase consideration of local growth criteria and impact in research and development fund design”.

One aspect of our approach is to support and develop place-centred research ecosystems by enhancing connectivity across the UK. Connectivity is one of the principles for change in the UKRI strategy where we want to bring together diverse ideas, skills and knowhow in novel combinations to catalyse discovery and innovation.

In terms of place, connectivity is multifaceted; we aren’t defining it too tightly; so, it could mean connecting towns and cities, institutions or people.

Encouraging more connections

One area that we are particularly interested in is encouraging more connections across the academic-civic interface.

EPSRC recently carried out a survey with our university partners to understand the extent of existing academic-civic partnerships. We’re really pleased to say that the engineering and physical sciences community are making great strides in this domain, there’s lots going on!

One of our early insights is the breadth of contributions being made. We are seeing collaborations with a wide range of civic partners such as:

  • local enterprise partnerships
  • city councils
  • county councils
  • city deals
  • combined authorities
  • local NHS trusts.

What’s clear from the survey analysis is the timeliness of this work and the enthusiasm for academic-civic partnerships.

Revealing barriers universities face

The survey has helped reveal some of the barriers universities face in working with civic partners. Key issues flagged include:

  • lack of time and resource from both sides
  • finding the right entry point
  • lack of understanding of each other’s roles and language
  • data sharing challenges
  • recognising that one size doesn’t fit all, so the collaboration needs to be carefully tailored to the university and civic body.

The Unlocking the Potential of Civic Collaboration: A review of research-policy engagement between the University of Leeds and Leeds City Council (PDF,11.3MB) report predates our survey. It highlights many of the same issues, suggesting that these are longstanding barriers.

What’s great about the report is it also shows the benefits and enablers to working together, such as:

  • real-world problems and data for academics to work on
  • enabling civic bodies to harness expert knowledge to solve their problems
  • both parties getting different perspectives on the challenges they are facing.

Our survey has highlighted a wealth of case study insights, that we will use to inform our next steps as we try to encourage more academic-civic collaboration.

Civic interface through existing schemes

A number of these projects have been supported through existing UKRI or EPSRC funding routes such as our flexible Impact Acceleration Account, as well as networks, centres, and standard grants. So, if you’re an academic it’s well worth considering what you could do at the civic interface through our existing schemes.

One example, focusing on adult social care, is a collaboration between:

  • University of Leeds
  • Leeds Beckett University
  • Leeds City Council
  • Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council.

Stemming from the EPSRC-funded QuantiCode project, the team will take advantage of the improvement in the quality and scope of datasets used by local authorities to build artificial intelligence tools.

It is used to identify people at risk to recommend effective individual pathways of care to promote independent living. It is hoped this will reduce the costs for local authorities and maximise the benefit of the resources they have available to them.

A second example demonstrates a collaboration between:

  • academics
  • civic bodies
  • business.

Simplifai, a University of Huddersfield spin-out, uses innovative traffic control methods to address air quality issues. Its technology is being used by Kirklees Council and is being rolled out more widely across the north. The relationship and technology are continuing to be developed through a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

That’s just a couple of examples from the region in which I work.

Strong foundation of engagement with civic bodies

Looking at our existing portfolio as a whole, we have a strong foundation of academic engagement with civic bodies, including:

  • one hundred eighteen current EPSRC grants have civic body project partners
  • £29 million is leveraged from civic bodies on existing grants
  • seventy different civic bodies and civic organisations are project partners on current grants.

I’ll leave you with a few thoughts on what support is already available for academic-civic collaboration.

In terms of eligible grant costs on EPSRC projects you could include:

  • employment of specialist knowledge transfer staff to work across the interface
  • consultancy fees or small-scale subcontracts with the civic body
  • public engagement activity with civic partners
  • workshops or engagement events across the interface
  • networking activities
  • people exchange.

For collaborations with NHS trusts specifically we have tailored support for NHS research project costs.

Developing approach to civic-academic partnerships

Over the coming months we will continue to learn from the insights arising from our survey and further develop our approach to civic-academic partnerships. This includes exploring models that encourage and enable co-creation and co-delivery with local leadership.

It is only through more academic-civic collaborations that place-based investments will create outcomes from which all citizens benefit.

If you are an academic, I’d encourage you to start to give more thought to:

  • how you might contribute to place-based activities
  • how your work might support or benefit civic partners (and they don’t necessarily have to be local to you!).

Many universities have strategic relationships with:

  • local authorities
  • health
  • police
  • crime
  • fire services.

Universities are also looking for researchers to engage in front line strategy and service delivery so you will find open doors if you do decide to engage.

If you’re working in a civic body and you know that you would benefit from closer working with a university and their academic expertise, there has never been a better time to reach out to them.

If you’d like to discuss academic-civic collaboration further, please get in touch with the team: regional.engagement@epsrc.ukri.org

This blog was first published on LinkedIn. Follow Helen on LinkedIn.

Top image:  Credit: jacoblund, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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