Widening the net through evidence co-production

February 13, 2019

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By Pippa Coutts, Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

Yesterday, the Civic Universities Commission published its report looking into how universities can contribute to wellbeing of the places they inhabit. I was delighted that the Commission loudly states that universities have a role to play in supporting place-making, working with domains like health, education, and business. It’s exciting to read, alongside the report, over 30 universities have pledged to put the quality of life in their home towns and cities at the top of their list of priorities.

One approach universities can take to supporting local areas is working with them to generate useful evidence that meets their needs, as the civic universities’ report suggests. Although there are good examples of evidence that has a direct impact on people and services, there is much to be done to connect the intellectual and research power of universities to decision-makers’ needs for evidence of what works in the local context. For example, over many years of working in the library sector, Carnegie UK Trust has found a dearth of evidence that is relevant to the sector’s interests and the challenges it currently faces.

The Trust for several years been involved in discussions and debate with stakeholders around approaches to increasing the relevance of research to people outside of academia: producing discussion documents, convening roundtables, exploring the challenges and routes to partnerships between the third sector and universities. This has led us to conclude that the co-production of evidence warrants more attention. In our newly published briefing paper, I explore what the co-production of evidence looks like and how people might embark on co-producing.

Across the UK, there are many examples of co-produced services, especially in health and social care. Looking at these and the resources they are based on or produce, you can see the principles that guide co-production – mutuality and respect for the other. To develop the co-production of evidence, universities would do well to take on board these principles. Our experience is that up to now a major barrier to partnership working between universities and other, local, sectors has been the over-dominance of the university. In co-produced evidence, researchers, and universities, will have to let go, work flexibly, support and enable their co-producers to take part.

In the briefing paper, I recognise that moving to the co-production of evidence across all parts of a research project is hard to do. To tackle this, I suggest that we break down the research process into stages. Some parts of the process, such as the analysis of research, might be harder to co-produce than others. The latter stages offer fertile ground, and researchers in conservation have argued that co-assessment of research findings is an efficient and impactful part of the co-production process. For people embarking on co-production, the start of the process is important: researchers and their partners need time to come together to agree mutual aims and ways of working.

Co-production of evidence will be only a small part of the efforts of universities to forge closer links with their localities. But, I believe there is appetite from many perspectives – such as economic development, cultural regeneration, planning, and the third sector – to work more closely with universities to produce research that can be applied to the tricky issues they face. I hope the Civic University Commission report will create more fertile ground for developing mutually beneficial interactions, and ultimately partnerships, between universities, local leaders and citizens.