Everyone in the UK has a stake in research and innovation (R&I), but if it is to truly reflect our diverse communities, we need to build effective collaboration and new forms of partnership with a much wider range of organisations, groups and communities.
That’s about engaging a more collaborative and connected system of people, ideas and institutions, looking beyond project-based funding, and using our resources and policies to nurture cultures, develop careers, connect institutions, and create new, boundary-spanning opportunities and platforms. Now is the time to build and strengthen opportunities for those who have consistently lacked power and recognition to propose what stronger and more equal knowledge production looks like.
For those of us working to break down the barriers between research and wider society, this expanded view of the research and innovation sector provides an impetus for new approaches to public and community engagement.
Over the last few years, UKRI and The Young Foundation have – both together and through their separate missions – developed programmes, invested in projects, and built evidence to understand how communities across the UK might play a more equitable role in the research and innovation system. This work has also listened to a diverse range organisations that are working with local communities to understand the barriers they consistently hit when collaborating with the research system, and when seeking capacity, funding and access for the knowledge and data they need.
Equitable and connected
Through our work, we’ve seen that the UK has a rich mix of charities, community organisations, local authorities and collectives currently working on research with local communities, but this system is disconnected from – and has previously been undervalued by – the formal research and innovation system. Traditional approaches to funding community research, which have largely been short-term projects where communities play limited roles and cannot set the agenda, have done little to change this picture.
In October 2021, UKRI commissioned The Young Foundation’s Institute for Community Studies to undertake scoping research to investigate the potential for investments that might pave the way for more sustainable and equitable forms of collaboration. This research was developed with input from representatives from more than 50 local and community representatives, from grassroots and community interest groups to local government and public agencies. It demonstrates that new engagement, partnership and funding approaches are needed to create more equitable research. This means connecting with and investing in research capacity within communities, moving beyond funding projects where research organisations design engagement with communities but hold power over the terms and agenda. Finally, the report finds that investing in infrastructure and capacity-building is needed to build recognition and support the growth of knowledge produced by communities.
The path ahead
Today, we are publishing that report and announcing a new funding opportunity that we hope does just this. Over the next four years, UKRI will invest over £4m in the creation of a series of Community Research Networks, that will focus on building relationships, developing and sharing knowledge, and supporting the core capacity for communities and local organisations to develop and share research that is useful, produced and owned by them. After the initial Expression of Interest phase, long-term investment and support will be available to a number of collaborators to implement their ideas, build capacity and infrastructure, and achieve sustainability. R&I institutions alone shouldn’t be the architects beyond this: what these networks and their purpose look like is a collaborative endeavour with communities.