In Part 2 of Jonny’s interview with Jacob Diggle, Head of Strategy and Insight at Mind, they discuss different types fo collaboration request and advice for academics wanting to collaborate with voluntary organisations. If you missed it, read Part 1 here.
Jonny: Do you find that requests come in at different levels of a research project (e.g., design, analysis, distributing the findings)?
Jacob: We do. Sometimes it will be helping with study design or sometimes it will be a request from a project that’s well underway but the researchers realise that there’s a gap and they want us to help with that. Other times, they want us to disseminate their work as well as help with tasks at a pre-grant stage.
But there are other kinds of requests. For example, we receive requests to submit evidence that we’re already aware of, particularly from the grey literature, to inform evidence reviews. As with other requests, there’s a good and bad way of doing this. The assumption that Mind will do your entire grey literature review for you is different than saying “we recognise there’s some really important research that you guys are producing that we need to access”.
The other common request is around student projects. Often a course or a lecture class has not only been told to reach out to the voluntary sector to help with their research, but they are also given a list of contact details. Then we get around 30 people from the same course all emailing, saying “can you help with my study”. These student projects are inevitably of variable quality, some people will say “I am doing research on this topic, how should I design it and can you give me the data you have on it?” and that is not something we can do. Do your own homework. This can be a big problem because it’s good that academics are encouraging students to think about research in community settings and work in voluntary organisations, but academics have a responsibility to help the students do that work well – otherwise, it’s setting up bad habits and precedents.
Jonny: What do you look for in a student request?
Jacob: The red lines would be:
1) Someone has to have thought about “why Mind?” and recognise that they will have to adapt their own normal ways of working to be as equal as possible and have an alignment in terms of the values of what they’re doing – that’s really important.
2) A topic should be relevant or there is enough flexibility in that topic that it could fit in with Mind’s strategy because this reflects the priorities of people with lived experience.
3) There is a level of support from a host academic institution that can provide a level of supervision and support to students, so that the burden is not all on the voluntary organisation.
If all three red lines are met it doesn’t automatically mean we’ll go for it, because factors like capacity and getting the timing right are important too.
Jonny: Do you only consider direct requests, or would you be open to having a conversation before a request is made?
Jacob: If the conversation is so open that we’ve got no way of assessing whether those criteria would be met or not, then on the balance of risk, we probably wouldn’t spend time on it. There is a ‘Goldilocks zone’ of showing that you’ve done some thinking and that you’ve invested some of your own time into why this might be important to Mind. Showing us that the opportunity of the relationship is important enough that you can change your thinking and be flexible will help to get a foot in the door.
Jonny: Do Mind also reach out to academics/academic institutes?
Jacob: Yes – it’s definitely two way. Again, in each ofthose three types of involvement, we will proactively reach out to academics when we’ve got a funding opportunity and they are recognised as the leading expert in that space. If we hear about a study that’s going on that we think is really relevant and we want to try and shape before the researchers get too far then we will reach out and ask, “is there any way that we can be involved?”. We’ve done that with the Mental Health Policy Research Unit, which is a joint Kings and UCL project funded by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). It’s primarily funded by the DHSC with an agenda set by the DHSC, but we recognise that there’s a lot of value in thinking about policy and relevant research from a voluntary sector lens. In that situation we already had some relationships with the academics involved and we managed to discuss other ways that we could support.
Another example is our work with the UCL COVID social study. It was already up and running, but we were able to reach out and speak to the study team to help influence the design and the choice of some of their questions in order to make it as relevant as possible.
However, it is rarer for us to reach out to academics, partly because it is harder to know about some of these projects at the right stage. That saidough, for policy work or for some service design work we will often reach out informally to academics who have done research that’s relevant or useful and ask to chat, not to be involved in new studies but to better understand their insights and see how that can inform our work.
Jonny: There’s definitely a rhetoric that there should be more collaboration between academics and the voluntary sector. So, what advice would you give to academics who are thinking about collaboration?
Jacob: A useful parallel to this is the increasing emphasis in academia on interdisciplinary research – trying to break out of those disciplinary silos. In general, it’s a good thing; however, not all research needs to be interdisciplinary all the time.
If your project/your study doesn’t have the resource and/or doesn’t have the flexibility in the methods or questions you’re interested in, then it will likely be a disaster rather than a positive. The same applies for getting involved with the voluntary sector. Yes, as a whole, there are lots of advantages in terms of the scientific value that’s produced, because doing projects in the community and in real world settings is a place in which people live their lives and services are delivered. Therefore, doing research in such settings can produce better scientific knowledge and help to overcome some of the big challenges we’re facing, particularly in psychological research, around the reproducibility crisis and limited implementation science.
The last point to underline is that within the diversity of the voluntary sector there is real value in umbrella groups and federations. For example, with Mind, if you approach a local Mind directly, which may be of good approach for a local university, the capacity and skills of that local organization will be very variable. However, if you approach the national umbrella body or federation – such as UK Youth as the umbrella body for all youth sector organisations or whether it’s a federated charity like Mind – approaching a national organisation can often give you a better chance of success. National or federation organisations are likely to have more capacity and expertise to support you and link you up with smaller organisations, where appropriate.
If you would like to collaborate with Mind, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org