Think tanks and universities: a research project proposal

28 March 2013

The Think Tank Initiative has recently launched a double call for studies on the relationship between think tanks and universities in Latin America and South Asia:

(The African studies are being commissioned via PASGR but I do not have more information than what is on its website).

This is an issue that we have written about quite a lot in onthinktanks. Both in relation to specific projects such as the TTI or AusAid’s Knowledge Sector Support Programme in Indonesia as well as more generally; see for example:

I have been giving this issue some thought because I think it is important. Strong universities are, in my view, necessary for a strong think tank community. The latter is not possible without the former. This new call offers an excellent opportunity to develop a significant new body of knowledge on an important issue. I must say that I was surprised at the size of the grants (CAD250,000; CAD1 is about USD1) but it, at least, means that we’ll be in for a treat when the content comes pouring in. And it should. Anything less than a truckload of new studies would be a wasted opportunity.

I’ve been on the side of the organisations writing proposals for these kind of projects. There is a huge temptation to make them extra complicated and to add lots of layers to the projects in an effort to 1) make them seem more innovative and ‘holistic’ than they need to be and 2) keep as much overhead as possible (e.g by organising coordinating events and the like that demand lots of ‘management’ time).

I am not going to be bidding for this myself and I prefer to support anyone bidding in public via this blog. I believe that this is something that has to be owned and implemented by the very people and organisations that the studies will inform the most: the universities and think tanks of Latin America and South Asia. And I would have said the same for the African call had it been made public. If anything, I am looking forward to learning from the process and I will be setting aside lots of time to read (and hopefully watch and listen) and so I’d be happy to support and help any winning bid. Therefore, in an attempt to contribute to the process, here is my proposal; a humble and completely independent contribution that I hope offers some food for thought to the TTI and all potential bidders.

I must stress that I have nothing to do with this bid and have absolutely no say in it. This is nothing more than an attempt to encourage more organisations to bid for it and to, maybe, inspire some (one?) ideas to take on in the design of the proposals.

A possible project design: Keep it Simple and make it Big (inspired by the density model)

First a note about the research approach: I would like to see both historical and anthropological studies of the academic communities in each and every country of these two regions. Only by exploring the origin and the detail (often personal details) of these relationships can we truly understand them. And let us not be afraid of a bit of ‘anthropology at home’ because the only way to uncover these details is to be close to and know where to look for them. The richness of the studies presented in the book on Think Tanks and Political Parties that I had the pleasure to edit in 2009 came from this kind of effort (which was part of a larger effort to study the politics of research uptake and the context of think tanks). This means that the bidding organisations need to work with historians, anthropologists sociologists and political scientists as potential authors.

It would also be good to see studies that document the histories of a ‘representative’ sample of universities and think tanks in each country and not just those of the usual suspects that we already know about. The TTI should be looking, therefore, for cases of universities and think tanks that their IDRC officers have never heard off.

And if  the bid will be attempting any new or interesting approaches why not consider social network analysis (historical) to both ‘quantify’ and describe the complex and very close relationships that exist between researchers in think tanks, universities, policymaking bodies, etc.

By simple I mean two clear types of activities: research and communication. Both can be managed independently yet in close coordination and with very low overheads. Research in particular would be even simpler as it would involve a single activity: commission several studies with a same ToRs, budget, etc.

And by Big: The budget should be enough for up to 20 papers/chapters on the relationship between universities and think tanks that could address one or more of the questions outlined in the Terms of Reference. In theory it should be possible to cover all countries in each region (with at least two per country in South Asia). Imagine the richness of the final product!

To keep things simple and overheads low, the grant should be awarded to a single organisation or, at most, to a partnership of two organisations with a proven record of working together (the grantees). If it goes to the former then it should go to a research centre within a university (for obvious reasons) and if it goes to the latter to a partnership between a non-university think tank and a university think tank, but with a single lead.

The papers should be commissioned via an open call (after the grant has been awarded) to researchers working in think tanks/research centres (in and outside universities) across each region. A preference for co-authored papers including someone from a university and someone from a non-university think tank could be included in the call. CAD10,000 per paper is more than enough to guarantee very high quality work.

To encourage the grantee to manage the entire process without having to charge a separate and expensive overhead, the proposal could allow for ‘keeping’ up to 5 of the papers. So 15 papers would be written by others and 5, including a paper to set the scene and at least one synthesis paper, by the grantees. In the case of Latin America maybe they should only keep up to 4 so that the remaining 16 could potentially cover all countries in the region (plus the grantee’s country) -unless the partnership is between a think tank and a university research centre in two different countries (but this could be too complicated to manage). Also in Latin America, an alternative is to choose a representative sample of countries and maybe commission 2-3 papers in each; so rather than coverage, depth.

The real incentive to bid for this and manage the entire process, however, should be that the grantees would be taking the lead in developing an almost entirely new body of knowledge. This can’t be easily priced.

This would leave about CAD50,ooo for various administrative (but not just overhead) and communications (see below) activities: more than enough (way more than enough, particularly given what could be produced with digital tools (see below) and the benefit it would have for all those involved).

To choose the grantees, the TTI could consider their capacity to commission, manage and publish high quality research; their connections to the right researchers and research networks across their region; and their capacity to effectively communicate the outputs of the research. A key criteria could be the capacity of the grantees to leverage funds from their own Editorial Funds or other funders to make this even bigger. The bids could include lists of potential authors as a sign that the grantees know the academic community they are aiming for; and the TTI could even consider awarding the grant to commission those authors (without the open call) but I would hope that that decision would be made in the open, at least. In a way, it is a good idea to commission researchers who already have an interest in the subject since they are more likely to maximise the opportunity that this grant offers.

It would be ideal, too, if the cases proposed covered non-TTI countries. Not studying Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Chile or Argentina in Latin America would be a serious flaw of any bid.

A few questions may emerge in relation to potential add-ons to the proposals; or feature creep:

The most common cause of feature creep is the desire to provide the consumer with a more useful or desirable product, in order to increase sales or distribution. However, once the product reaches the point at which it does everything that it is designed to do, the manufacturer is left with the choice of adding unneeded functions, sometimes at the cost of efficiency, or sticking with the old version, at the cost of a perceived lack of improvement.

Another major cause of feature creep might be a compromise from a committee which decides to implement multiple, different viewpoints in the same product. Then, as more features are added to support each viewpoint, it might be necessary to have cross-conversion features between the multiple viewpoints, further complicating the total features.

So, please keep it simple: produce new research outputs and don’t mess about with complicated consortia or partnerships.

In the case of this project, the following issues may arise:

  • Should communications be the responsibility of the grantees and the authors (and their institutions) or of the TTI? My view is that this has to be communicated first by the grantees and the authors (and their institutions) and then by the TTI. It would be a wasted opportunity to take this responsibility away from them and it would then demand hiring lots of unnecessary ‘intermediaries’ to do something that researchers and communicators in Latin American and South Asian think tanks and universities are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. Once the studies are ready, the TTI can choose to get involved or help make connections between the studies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. Or they could commission some of their original grantees to do so thus encouraging South-south learning; even better!
  • Should all the papers have the same structure? I do not think so. Not only does this demand spending money coordinating but in fact the diversity that is likely to emerge from different researchers taking different approaches and employing different methods is something that should be encouraged. This book on the links between knowledge and politics that I edited with Norma Correa in 2011 presents the perspectives of policymakers, researchers and journalists, each with their own style and language. As a consequence it comes across as a great conversation. I should admit that this was more by chance than by design but I think that the final output worked rather well. In a way, this being the fist go at this issue, this kind of approach could lead to new interesting research questions and areas for further inquiry.
  • What about ‘capacity building’? Let’s leave that for later. The objective of this project should be to develop a new body of knowledge and help clarify this very complex and interesting relationship. Since many of the researchers will also be lecturers and professors they will incorporate their findings into their courses -and by producing supporting materials such as annotated bibliographies the project would be targeting students.
  • Policy influence? This is not the time nor the place. And given that the authors would be researchers within the very institutions that the projects wish to inform (the main audiences) then I think that much of what could be done will be done already. Think of it as side-take and down-take.
  • Networks? Should the bids include objectives related to building a network or learning from others, etc? No! If there isn’t a network studying this already (such an important issue) it is because there is no interest in one. If there ever is a chance for a network to develop on its own and to be sustainable it will be after these projects have flooded the research community with new research outputs and the issue has become a ‘researchable one’.

The outputs: a value for money benchmark

Now, the last thing that the TTI should want to do is hand over the money and not hear from the grantees and the researchers until the papers are done and published. Instead, the grantees should commission and manage the research as part of a clear communication strategy to make the research process as public and accessible as possible. There is no excuse to keep this private. Every paper should be blogged about (as it is commissioned, as the research starts and as updates are provided); the literature used in each paper should be posted as an annotated bibliography to share with a broader audience (in fact, each of the resources used could form part of a searchable database or reading list); the authors should be interviewed from time to time to get short 30sec video updates on the progress of their work; etc. This is doable even by small think tanks with budgets the size of each of the grants.

The grantees should also take advantage of blogs like onthinktanks to communicate their progress and encourage public engagement. They do not have to pay for this: it is, after all, our raison d’être. And the researchers should do this too: via their own blogs, twitter accounts, and their organisations’ usual communication channels. None of this needs to be written down as a formal strategy: just do it.

Once the papers (I would go for about 20-25 pages long) are finalised they could be published as 2 or 3 books (per region) depending on how they are edited. Books may be thought of as old fashioned but they still matter. However, the books should definitely also be published digitally. It would be a shame to let this opportunity pass by. Each paper can also be published on its own as a working paper or even a journal article (the authors should be encouraged to do so with improved ‘versions’ of the original chapters; a 1 pager of the papers can be blogged; a 2-4 pager brief or background note could be published independently, too; short videos of some of the more interesting and historical aspects of the papers could be developed, as well (never underestimate our appetite for historical insights about our own communities); etc. This 1:2:20 (or other) structure can be part of the terms of reference given to the authors when the studies are commissioned. The responsibility to blog could also be included in the ToRs. CAD10k is enough to ask for these little extras. And in any case, in this day and age, these should not be seen as extras anymore but as part of what researchers have to do.

Public events could be hosted by the authors in their institutions (no need to make them big and expensive: a 1.5 – 2hour lunch time meeting with coffee and biscuits would do) to present their papers as well as some of the others (from other countries). These events should be webstreamed to allow others to participate and, rather than flying people all over the place, Skype video calls should be encouraged. All of this could be recorded and shared in several formats and channels.

For ideas on how to communicate these new bodies of knowledge this blog could offer great inspiration: The power of the ‘package’ in communicating forestry research. A project website need not cost much, nothing really -use WordPress or Google Sites.

This ‘simple and big’ proposal should be able to deliver quite a lot (CAD50k is more than enough for this and most should probably go to hire a very competent and motivated communications officer -don’t be cheap!):

  • 2-3 short edited books (depending on how the grantees ‘cut’ the chapters and whether they can leverage additional Editorial Fund resources -also a digital version should be enough)
  • up to 20 (and possibly more) papers or journal articles including synthesis papers
  • up to 20 (and possibly more) background notes or briefs
  • about 20 annotated bibliographies (although the overall bibliography could be repackaged in lots of different ways, too)
  • at least 60 blog posts (three per paper plus many others including reading lists from the bibliographies)
  • about 40 short videos (short and using a smart phone is OK)
  • at least one event per country (in theory up to 24: there are 17 countries in Latin America -19 if we include Cuba and the Dominican Republic (or one event per country with case studies which I think ought to be at least 10); and 7 in South Asia -8 if we include British Overseas Territories)
  • at least one video per event (so possibly 24)
  • at least 2 blogs per event (so possibly 48)
  • Etc.

Plus all the other things that onthinktanks and other initiatives and peers will be able to do on their own; what the researchers themselves should be doing; and what the TTI should be able to do itself in terms of extra analysis (connecting the papers together and cross regional studies) and communications. The TTI could, for instance, translate the studies to make them all available in English, French, and Spanish; undertake a comparative study; … and, why not, do at least as much as the grantees will do in terms of communications. But this greatly depends on a project design that is open and engaging throughout the process and not just waits until the very end to share results.

I am probably stretching the number of papers that may in fact be possible but I would think that a handful would not be acceptable, either. And the range of communication outputs, even if we are talking of fewer papers, is still perfectly possible. Anything less, I would say, would not be value for money and a terribly wasted opportunity. Also, not very interesting.

The effects of this kind of Big Bang to maximise the density of information and knowledge about the relationship between universities and think tanks would be significant and far reaching: a few of the researchers involved are likely to recognise this as a ‘researchable subject’ and take it on for themselves; this literature from ‘the South’ will be so plenty and properly communicated that it would inevitably have to inform the decisions of funders in ‘the North’ who are, still, highly dependent on studies undertaken by Northern based ‘experts’ who spend a few days at a time in the countries they write about; and the research process it self will help to develop new research methods and approaches useful for the study of other communities and relationships.

The multi-output and multi-media approach would also provide an excellent opportunity to show researchers and think tanks what is possible with little funding (for comms) and an intelligent use of digital tools.

And what about evaluating its impact? Well, I would focus on the number and quality of outputs produced; and how the various communications channels and tools are used in combination. This is all that can be controlled and accounted for.

If you are interested in applying go to the Think Tank Initiative’s website:

Good luck with it and I hope this blog post gave you some ideas -even if they were a bit fanciful and slightly unrealistic. If you would like to discuss them further (or blatantly disagree) why not add your views below; or email me directly (but better in public).