Building a Culture of Collaboration
Effective public-interest change requires a strong 'knowledge infrastructure' that can support three kinds of learning:
- dialogue between producers and users of research about critical knowledge needs;
- strengthened capacities for actors on all sides in finding and mobilizing relevant research and data; and
- longer-term reflection, from the analysis of movement activities to the articulation of broader conceptual frameworks.
By most accounts, the public-interest media and communications field performs badly on these fronts. Few academics work closely with activists or produce research that is directly relevant to (or sufficiently timely for) activist or advocate projects. Few activists and advocates have the time, training, or incentives necessary to becoming rigorous producers or users of research. Networks for sharing knowledge, defining research needs, and building linkages between issues have been ad hoc. Although there are outstanding exceptions to all of these observations, the field does little to support them, leverage their abilities, or systematically reproduce their skills.
The Collaborative Grants project addresses these problems by building a stronger 'culture of collaboration' between researchers and advocates in the public media sector. Collaboration, in our context, means that researchers and advocates develop projects together and--in a number of cases--jointly conduct the research. Projects have to meet both academic standards of rigor and advocacy needs for direct, applied outcomes. Such collaboration is challenging in contexts where partners bring distinctly different needs and agendas to the table. The widely-perceived 'divide' between academic research and activism is a real problem, but in practice is composed of numerous little divides that complicate easy generalizations. Our experience is that many of these divides are tractable, and that modest support, recognition, and a context in which partners can share their experiences go a long way toward overcoming them. Some have proved harder. To a considerable extent, the Collaborative Grants project has been an experiment in determining which are which.
Seven rounds of grantmaking have validated a key hypothesis of this work: There is high demand for this model of 'necessary knowledge'. Many researchers are hungry for ways to make their work matter in a context of massive technological, social, and political change. Many advocates and activists perceive 'research gaps' in their work, and will invest in solutions. Over seven rounds, the applicant to grant ratio for the collaborative grants averaged over 6-1. From our perspective, small changes in the incentive structure in this area triggered a massive response from the field--one we could only begin to meet. Over time, high demand and successful models translate into pressure for institutional change--first and foremost in the academy, but extending into the advocacy sector. By building a community of innovators and working with parties on both sides, the Necessary Knowledge program has tried to be a catalyst for such change.
Who Gets Involved?
To a large extent, the grants project is a feedback loop between changes in the media and communications environment and changes in the organization of knowledge production in the academy and advocacy sector. The disciplinary mix of the primary investigators suggests the breadth of this interaction: core media issues cut across a wide range of traditional disciplines. There is no conventionally-bounded 'field' in this area. Our program has tried to provide a locus communis for this work.
Media and communications programs account for about 40% of the primary investigator pool. In our view, this is not a sign of disciplinary dominance as traditionally understood. Media and communications programs are internally diverse compared to most other departments and schools. Their organization is more thematic than methodological, and draws in researchers from more methodologically-defined disciplines. The low representation of other core social science disciplines--sociology, political science, and especially economics--should be understood in this context. Media is a small subfield within 'departmental' sociology and political science, and work on the social and political processes that inform change in the organization of the media is a subset of that subset. Where media is already a marginal pursuit, the added challenge and novelty of non-academic partnerships may represent a greater risk.
The low participation of economists is a more striking result given the dominance of market and competition analyses in many recent policy debates. Although economics departments are barely represented among PIs, the number of grants employing some form of competition analysis is significantly higher--some 7 of 44. We see this as at least partly a byproduct of the ways in which economic analysis has been deployed to undermine other rationales for media regulation, such as free speech or civil rights claims. There are obvious incentives within the field to accept this dominance, and often few resources to challenge it. In practice, public-interest economic research has come mostly from outside the economics field. The program has worked in limited ways to address this capacity gap. It has also played a consistent and deliberate role in trying to broaden debates about media policy and the public good beyond the market analysis.
A secondary premise of the program is that research capacity needs to be built across the academic seniority spectrum, in the interest of the long-term growth of the field and also because of widespread concern on the part of junior scholars that investing in non-academic research outcomes can be costly in tenure review. Diversity in this context serves two ends: legitimizing the work of junior scholars and providing opportunities for mentoring. The program has been very successful in this regard, with a large number of senior scholars acting as advisors and mentors for junior partners.
A third premise of the program is that severe disparities of research capacity within the field weaken the field. The Grants project has reached out to a wide range of partnering groups beyond the relatively research-capable Washington, DC advocacy sector. Grassroots organizations, media outlets, professional associations and other practitioners are key constituents in this larger culture of collaboration.
What is Collaboration?
Collaboration in our work is a broad term that encompasses many different kinds of relationships, from conventional 'producer-user' relationships, in which practitioner groups deploy the work of researchers, to close partnerships in project design, data gathering, and analysis. The key criterion in our work is not the closeness of the collaboration, but rather the case made for its utility to both the researchers and the advocacy groups.
A strong premise and, ultimately, finding of our work is that successful collaboration requires learning on all sides, as researchers begin to understand the needs, goals, and timeframes of their partners, and as advocates learn about the incentives and demands that shape academic research. The nature of this learning process varies--as do the tensions it can generate within collaborative projects. Relations of trust are critical, and consequently, community-building and face-to-face relationships matter a great deal. Where DC-based advocates generally know each other, grassroots activists often do not. The benefits of sharing experiences and practices in these contexts differ.
The Necessary Knowledge program has invested heavily in formalizing and facilitating these learning processes through convenings, project brokering, and ongoing technical support for grants. Connections with other SSRC projects are an important part of this dynamic, as people with longer arcs of participation in SSRC projects play more central roles in brokering and extending the work. SSRC programs on 'Information Technology and International Cooperation' and 'Culture, Creativity, and Information Technology' have provided much of this connective tissue.
Successful collaborations, in our view, go beyond the direct deliverables of the funded projects. They are also experiences that change the longer term perspectives and choices of both parties, and that filter out into the wider field. Building capacity in this sector is a core program goal--one that requires return customers on both ends of the collaboration and professional recognition for the outcomes. With only 20 projects complete, the jury is still largely out. But early signs are encouraging. Two 'Small Grants' projects were leveraged into successful 'Large Grants' and several others found support in their universities or through other funders. 100% of researchers new to collaborative research signaled an interest in continuing to work in this area, ensuring a future of derivative and follow-on projects. Current grants are generating peer-reviewed research (now 50% and climbing). And universities and other funders are beginning to make more explicit commitments to public scholarship, collaboration, and dissemination in this field.