For any research that hopes to change the world, in whatever way, good relationships with industry and government are essential to all parts of the process.
They’re crucial from the beginning of the process (when you’re defining the research questions and scope) right to the end (when the findings are being implemented). This is particularly important for research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, or other people and communities who have been discriminated against. For research requiring ethical approval, ethics committees are increasingly requiring evidence of engagement with end-users or relevant organisations. At the recruitment or product testing stage, finding potential research participants often requires industry assistance.
How can researchers form these relationships with industry and government?
The answer to this question will vary for each researcher and each research project, but two keys to success are genuinely shared values and genuine reciprocation. Industry and government stakeholders will respond positively if they see that researchers are trying to do good work, not just progress their careers. This means that researchers should not view relationships with industry and government as important for their own research (although they are!) but should see themselves as part of a bigger movement towards social change, better systems, better products or whatever else researchers are hoping to achieve.
For me, this has meant many hours of volunteer work with multiple organisations, including in direct practice as a pro bono lawyer and in governance as a committee or board member. I do this not because it looks good on my CV (although it does!) but because it is important work that needs doing. Almost as an afterthought, these relationships make my research - my day job - more meaningful and productive.
When I needed help with recruiting participants for a funded study during the pandemic, I was able to rely on the generosity of direct service organisations who distributed materials or even picked up and drove participants to the interview location. Conversely, when organisations I work with need an academic ‘talking head’ for a media story or a panel, they’ll sometimes call me because they know I am aligned with their values. I do training and professional development that’s sometimes free, sometimes paid, depending on the organisation.
The same goes for government: if I need support to access data held by government, I have contacts I can call on for support and, if they need advice or someone to sit on an advisory board, I’ll sometimes get called on to do that. All of these connections build my networks with other decision-makers, researchers, and service users. It isn’t so much that any one thing is valuable but, together, all these links create the foundation on which good research is built.
Eventually, these links become deep, beyond just one person in the organisation or department, and collaborations align with the strategic planning and purpose of the organisation. Eventually, we may have discussions about jointly applying for funding, supporting research funded by others, or funding my projects directly. I never start with these discussions but I make myself available for them when the time comes. When we have those conversations, I’m still thinking about what value I can offer the organisation, rather than what I want from them. Reciprocity is key. Whenever possible, I do research that originates as a priority from within an organisation or community group, rather than taking my ideas to them. This means that when my work is published it aligns with what the sector is focused on, and more likely to have an impact.
One example of this is the work I did with the Mental Health Legal Centre (MHLC). I started volunteering with the MHLC in 2014, providing legal advice on the evening phone legal help hotline. I did an unfunded research project with them in 2017, which they identified as a priority area. This resulted in a publication that was cited in a Productivity Commission report that adopted our paper’s recommendations. Later that year, the MHLC raised the issue of women’s safety in mental health inpatient units as systemic advocacy priority. With a colleague, we applied for funding from ANROWS, and were successful in a Category 1 grant, with a report published in 2020. Even without these tangible outcomes, working with the MHLC has given me insights into my research area that I would never have had otherwise.
For researchers who are yet to develop these links, it can be a challenge to work out how to get started. My advice is to find organisations and movements that align with your values and see what you can offer them before you ask for anything back. Like anything in academia, this might take years to come to fruition and many links, relationships and partnerships will never lead to funding.
I haven’t always done these things the right way. In the best case, the organisation has just politely told me that they’re not interested. In the worst case, they’ve said yes to my request for research partnership but haven’t meant it, and the project has stalled because I didn’t actually have the support of the organisation. In every case, this has been a result of not building the foundations required for genuine research partnerships.
Even in these cases, where it can be difficult to see tangible outcomes, learning from working with industry and public sector has improved me as a researcher and a human, so it is never wasted.
Chris’ work sits at the intersections of health, welfare and the law, and is underpinned by human rights and social justice. He is the author of over 50 peer-reviewed publications and commissioned reports, and is the author of ‘Social work and the Law: a guide for ethical practice'.
Chris tweets from @chrismaylea.