Risks and challenges to CSO participation

Avoid being overwhelmed by the ratio of the others

In all types of collaborative research projects there is the risk that the researchers or the CSOs feel outnumbered or overwhelmed by the ratio of the other party in the project.

CSOs or researchers might end up trying to fulfill the goals of the other collaborators rather than staying on track to pursue their own needs and interests. To avoid this happening, there should be a sufficient awareness of such risks, and a clear agreement relating to incorporating the goals of both types of parties (which need to be addressed in the beginning of the project). Once this is agreed on all sides an iterating practice of evaluation and dialogue will keep the project on track and help to avoid such problems arising.

For example, we studied a project where CSOs and communities were strong in controlling researchers’ actions. This ended up forcing the researchers to decline attending conferences which were sponsored by organizations which are not respected by the involved CSOs. However, as the conference was central to the research direction, one researcher in the consortium found a solution through sending his Phd student:

“We are not presenting our data. But we are trying to find out what other people are finding. Is the data we’ve got (…) different from what other people have found? That is the reason why we want to do that. [attend the conference despite the CSOs' objections]”.

Define common and single responsibilities and/or project inputs

At the other end of the scale, participatory project consortia can be at risk of insisting on all project partners being involved in defining solutions for every question or issue that arises.

However, there are generally only a few decision-making areas which need the participation of all team members: most decisions can be designated to the responsibility of only some members of the team. Depending on the type of project and the common or individual intended goals, responsibilities for thematic fields and processes should be agreed before the project starts. However, such decisions also need to be evaluated on a regular basis and if necessary adapted.

For example in one project, the CSOs complained that they were required to attend long telephone conferences where every detail was decided together and the input of all consortium partners insisted upon:

“I believe that more coordination between the coordinator and us might have been good. We make Skype calls, they take a long time, but should perhaps be a little better moderated” .

Expect the unexpected – Allow extra time and resources

Even if you are confident of your awareness of possible risks before the project starts, incidents or problems might occur that you have not experienced previously. This is all the more common in collaborative projects between researchers and CSOs: connecting scientific action with societal perspectives is much more likely to give rise to logical gaps or practical necessities that neither partner has encountered - or even been aware of - before.

Each solution in every project will look different. That is why the consortium and the funder should calculate an extra amount of time and resources to allow for solving such issues. Advisory boards can also be very relevant here in assisting to overcome the specific and individualised issues arising within a particular project:

“The external advisory board’s primary role is to ensure that the research enterprise is working forward to a great commensurate with the guidelines and objectives of the application, of the grant. They look at whether the administrative and other functional structures continue to enhance progress on the research. The stakeholder advisory board, made up of community partners for the large part, is geared towards essentially making sure that those research findings are being communicated effectively.”

Define fields of expertise for the CSOs or for the researchers in cooperation with the funder

Often funders pursue a specific strategy when sponsoring projects which include CSOs. They expect the CSOs to play a specific role or to have a specific effect on the results of a project. Additionally, CSOs and researchers have expectations towards themselves, each other and/or the funder.

Responsibilities and expectations can be clarified and fixed between funders, CSOs and researchers before the project starts in order to avoid major conflicts during the lifetime of a project.

In one project we studied the CSO was selected to be the Coordinator because it had the scientific knowledge as well as the ability to disseminate results widely – better than any other organisation in that field could have done it. According to the funder:

“By [the CSO] as an environmental organization with a nationwide focus, we can assume that for [the concerned] issues, approaches can be developed that are transferable nationwide”.

The research partner also agreed that:

"The [CSO] is so much in the public eye so that it disseminate results better than we could do it”.