Slow science and measuring the social value of universities

GLOBAL UNIVERSITY NETWORK FOR INNOVATION (GUNI) Conference on University Engagement 2013
Blog series, Fifth post
Workshop on Funding Enablers for Community Engagement 
Following this encouraging plenary discussion (see fourth post), delegates then split up into breakout groups, each considering the political  and structural enablers for engagement through one of the four following ‘lenses’: policy; funding; infrastructures; networks/people.
I participated in the funding workshop which was chaired by Claudia Neubauer, Director of the Fondation Sciences Citoyennes.
In her introduction, Claudia reminded us that funding for community engagement is still very marginal and community engagement faces a number of barriers in the traditional university context, as it is not regarded as ‘real science’. It requires staff who are able to operate at a transdisciplinary level,  it goes against received notions of research excellence, and it requires a problem-based approach, new perspectives and new innovation pathways.
Community engagement is a ‘slow science’, Claudia argued, but like Slow Food, would pay much greater dividends in the long run. There are some encouraging developments, though , in social enterprise and crowdfunding initiatives, she pointed out.
The role of evaluation
In the ensuing group discussions, there was consensus that we firstly needed to agree common terms to describe the problem and agree a new vision across stakeholders about how the problem could be best tackled. Those present, which included Gilles Laroche from the European Commission’s Directorate for Research and Innovation, Matthieu Calame from the Fondation Charles Leopold Mayer pour le Progres de l’Homme, and experienced colleagues from South Africa, Puerto Rico, and Uganda, agreed that one of the keys to embedding funding for community engagement  and social cohesion lies in evidence gathering through evaluation of social funding initiatives.
A funders forum, hosted by GUNI for example,  and focussed on the challenge of measuring the social return on investment, considering any available case studies and resources or methods used, would be a practical step forward in this regard. One such resource would be Through a Glass Darkly: Measuring the Social Value of Universities by Ursula kelly and Iain McNicoll, who are acknowledged experts in the field. Another would be our own work funding a portfolio of projects Embedding Research Impact Analysis, which brought together research groups, business and community engagement experts and information management experts both across and within universities. Most projects focussed on methods of impact evaluation and tracking and were situated in social science or health contexts.

The group discussed the evaluation of an initiative can lead to the wrong conclusions if not carefully designed with a number of checks and balances.  A revealing example from Uganda was cited that illustrated this well. In this case the evaluators of a jointly funded initiative used the metric of the number of fields which had been planted with a particular subsistence crop against the level of overall investment, but unfortunately both the proportion and the distribution of the fields (metrics which had not been captured in context) benefiting merely exacerbated the existing inequalities amongst the local population.
Some other progressive ideas emerged in a wider discussion of how to embed community engagement funding in the mainstream and ensure a social return on investment. For example it was suggested that more funders should be on the Advisory Boards of community engagement and social improvement initiaves, but bringing ideas rather than funding.
Boards of Trustees of such organisations should be educated in the value of the socially and culturally transformational and qualitative benefits rather than just focussing on the financial and economic benefits. It was also proposed that community groups should work togther to develop new ideas and proposals and take these to funders, rather than wait for funders make funding available to them according to funders’ predefined criteria.
There was consensus that universities have a key role to play in influencing these policies and in helping to develop robust theories of change which can convince politicians and funders. But participants acknowledged that those within universities do not generally get so much recognition for activities in support of community engagement, in an academic environment that values research publications published in high impact journals.
This implies that a much greater importance needs to be placed on the ‘grey literature’ that universities and other parties produce and co-produce in the valuation and disssemination of knowledge on good practice in community engagement, an issue alluded to by Hart and Northmore note in their 2010 paper Auditing and Evaluating University–Community Engagement (Higher Education Quarterly).

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