In one of my early Considering Community posts I outlined several broad types of community – from communities of interest to communities of circumstance – and I mused on whether the different types might use online tools distinctly.
In reflecting recently on the different communities represented in the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program that I run, I realised that it’s time to dive a little deeper on this topic – considering some of the different configurations of community specifically within science.
In this first post on the topic, I discussed professional societies for scientists and what I call infrastructure or “halo” organisations. In part two I’m going to consider research collaborations.
Scientific research collaborations can have a range of different configurations. I’ll discuss them from 3 different perspectives i) geographical scale, ii) disciplinary composition and iii) overall program structure – noting the challenges for successful community-building that each can bring. I’ll give examples of programs or collaborations for each type of research collaboration, drawing on the roles of the members of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program 2017 cohort where relevant.
Please note that rarely is the person who is doing the project and people coordination termed a community manager in these instances. More typically they may be Principal Investigators (PIs), Center Directors or Administrative Directors/Assistant Directors.
i) Geographical Scale
- Some collaborations may occur on a local level – perhaps between researchers in the same department or between stakeholders within the same city. Typically, face-to-face meeting are more frequent than projects spanning larger areas and this can make relationship-building easier, likely with productivity gains for the project.
- Urban@UW is an example of a city-wide collaboration in Seattle where the program manager is the community coordinator, working out of the University of Washington to broker relationships between diverse groups working to “holistically design and steward vibrant and welcoming cities in which future generations will thrive.”
- Other research collaborations occur on a regional or state-wide level – with the intention of fostering research capacity between multiple research institutes / researchers within an area.
- The NSF EPSCOR program is one such example, with ESPCOR grants awarded to multiple states. In Utah, iUTAH EPSCOR coordinates research into water sustainability with a core administrative team including a Director, Assistant Director and Communications Manager. The Assistant Director plays the role of community manager, bridging relationships between multiple universities in the region.
- At this level, the entire collaboration only meets face-to-face several times a year and instead smaller project groups may coordinate more regular in-person meetings.
c) National / International
- On the larger scale, some research projects span a country or the globe. For example, The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) is a global research program “to understand carbon’s role in Earth.” The program has 4 core research areas or communities with activities additionally including data management and the development of instrumentation – as well as public engagement and training activities.
ii) Disciplinary composition
- Research collaborations can range from uni-disciplinary to trans-disciplinary with different challenges coming with each.
- Uni-disciplinary collaborations are likely to already share common language and methodologies while trans-disciplinary work requires exploring how to synthesise knowledge and work together in new ways. This is likely to include a large amount of knowledge brokering and facilitation on the part of the community engagement professional on the project. (See here for examples of transdisciplinary research toolkits and here for a discussion of knowledge-brokering.)
- One of the transdisciplinary projects from the CEFP cohort is The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) community.
iii) Overall program structure
One thing that’s become clear from working with those involved in various grant-funded collaborations is that the funder’s overall program structure can impact a) the lifespan of the original community b) the evolution of the community’s configuration and when a community manager is introduced and c) whether community managers from different projects have opportunities to interact.
a) Lifespan of the original community
- In some case pilot projects may only be funded for a limited time period – and it’s not necessarily expected that those communities continue indefinitely.
- In other cases, communities are expected to determine their sustainability models during the establishment and growth of the community e.g. DCO’s funding wraps up in 2020 and iUTAH EPSCOR funding ended this year. In the case of iUTAH, the strength of community formed as a result of the 10 year project is hoped to have created the potential for ongoing collaborations between community members.
b) Evolution of the community’s configuration and introduction of a community manager
- The NSF INCLUDES program has so far funded two rounds of individual pilot project grants. Each of these is operating somewhat independently under the overall INCLUDES program umbrella with NSF supplying Technical Assistance providers to act as community managers to provide some communication between the pilots. In the second component of the program the goal is to scale up some of these projects to alliance level collaborations by adding partners and consolidating similar activities. In component three a coordination hub will link the alliances.
- Scaling up like this, from often local or regional projects to national-level collaborations requires a concomitant scaling of both human and technical infrastructure i.e. tools and processes for working together remotely need to be refined and an explicit community manager role to facilitate this needs to be created. We explored these topics at an NSF-funded AAAS conference on the human and technical infrastructure needed to scale the INCLUDES collaborations. You can read about some of the survey results of how participants are using existing technologies and their current communication practices here.
- It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of the research programs such as NSF EPSCOR include non-research components such as establishing professional development pathways in STEM e.g. by introducing high school or undergraduate summer schools in addition to the core research collaboration. The community manager may not be directly involved in these outreach activities, but will likely be involved in the in-reach required to keep the core project team informed about them.
- The NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation also evolve in two distinct phase – the initial establishment of the Centers followed by application for phase II funding three years later. In the Centers that I’ve worked with, the community manager for each Center (the Managing Director) did not start until phase II. This brings the challenge of introducing fresh personnel into already partially established configurations and the ramp-up time this incurs.
c) Interactions between community managers
- For programs that fund projects on a shared timeline (such as the NSF INCLUDES program where two rounds of pilot projects were funded with each set of pilots commencing at the same time) those in the community-building roles for each project may have the opportunity to meet others also participating in the program.
- The INCLUDES program has hosted several in-person meetings attended by the project PIs, allowing building of relationships across the projects and sharing of common themes. This has been supplemented with online affinity groups coordinated by the NSF TA team for those projects tackling related themes. These create opportunities for communities of practice to develop around additional knowledge sharing and possibly synthesis.
- By contrast, the Managing Directors for the Centers for Chemical Innovation aren’t all in the same stage of funding. This can bring advantages due to being able to share advice from different stages of the projects, but also means that they are not a true cohort in the sense of participating in the program synchronously.
Are you part of a research collaboration? How would you describe the scale and coordination of your project? Who is the person in the community manager role, if there is one? I’d love to hear of additional examples outside the US.