Collaborative research in sustainable water management : academic interactions with practice

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Collaborative research in sustainable water management : academic interactions with practice
research in sustainable water
: academic interactions with
Recherche collaborative dans le domaine de la gestion de l’eau :
interactions entre les laboratoires de recherche et les praticiens
Sharp, Liz and Dixon, Jennifer
Liz Sharp, Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University
of Bradford, BD7 1DP, UK, [email protected]
Jennifer Dixon, School of Architecture and Planning, The University of
Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand,
[email protected]
La recherche dans la gestion durable de l’eau doit généralement impliquer des
utilisateurs à des fins de pertinence et de transfert de connaissance en fin de travaux.
Cet article explore la dynamique des interactions entre chercheurs et utilisateurs par
le biais de ces programmes. Il présente un classement des interactions avec les
utilisateurs ainsi que la nature et l’étendue de ces interactions dans le cadre de deux
grands programmes de recherche sur l’eau. Cet article conclut que si la recherche
doit transformer la pratique, une interaction permanente et flexible avec une gamme
d’utilisateurs est souhaitable. Le développement de tels procédés volontairement
interactifs de co-apprentissage peut remettre en question les schémas existants de
pratique et de financement de la recherche.
Much contemporary sustainable water management research is explicitly expected to
involve research users, with the aim of achieving relevance, and to ensure
‘knowledge transfer’ upon completion. This paper explores the dynamics of
researchers’ interactions with research users within such research programmes. A
classification of interactions with research users is developed, and the nature and
extent of interactions with research users are reviewed in two large water research
programmes. The paper concludes that if research is to transform practice ongoing
and flexible interaction with a range of research users is desirable. The development
of such intentionally interactive processes of co-learning may challenge existing
patterns of research practice and funding.
Collaborative research ; interdisciplinarity ; knowledge production ; research users ;
strategic research.
Much contemporary large-scale research undertaken in relation to integrated water
management is explicitly interdisciplinary, multi-institutional, and requires the
involvement of research users. Such developments are part of a broader growth in
what is variously labelled ‘interdisciplinary’, ‘transdisciplinary’ or (our preferred term)
‘strategic’ research. Strategic research is oriented to contemporary problems that
transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries (Lowe and Phillipson, 2006). The
involvement of researchers from multiple disciplines is intended to ensure that new
perspectives are developed, while research users’ engagement is expected to
achieve ongoing relevance, and to ensure ‘knowledge transfer’ upon completion of
the programmes. The extent to which strategic research achieves the intended levels
of interdisciplinarity has already been the subject of considerable contemporary
comment (Lowe and Phillipson, 2006; Pahl, 2005; Bruce et al, 2004), including that by
the authors (Dixon and Sharp, 2006). Here, the focus moves on to comment on the
nature, extent and impact of user involvement in research. Specifically, the paper
asks what extent of research user involvement constitutes ‘interaction’, and how such
involvement is developed and managed to maximum effect. This paper will examine
these questions through case studies of two large scale research programmes on
sustainable water management in the UK and New Zealand.
The paper begins by reviewing accounts of strategic research and the extent of
interdisciplinarity achieved. The nature of collaborations with research users is then
explored. A classification of the dynamics of interactions with research users is
proposed to articulate increasing levels of user-collaboration in research
programmes. In the empirical section, the two research programmes are introduced
and the nature and extent of interactions with research users are reviewed. A
number of component elements in research programmes that can inhibit or enhance
collaboration with users are then examined. The paper concludes by raising several
critical challenges for researchers to address when proposing to work collaboratively
with research users.
According to Lowe and Phillipson (2006) the traditional binary division into ‘basic’ and
‘applied’ research, have recently been extended to a new category called ‘strategic’
research, “to signify investment in science that is socially or economically relevant but
not with immediate commercial potential” (p167). They argue that strategic research
is both interdisciplinary, in terms of overcoming barriers between traditional scientific
disciplines, but that it also incorporates research users. In this sense strategic
research is expected to be both transformative in terms of its processes of knowledge
creation, and innovative in terms of the processes of setting and developing research
agendas and applying research knowledge. In these respects Lowe and Phillipson’s
definition of strategic research has much in common with definitions of
‘transdisciplinary research’ (Pahl, 2005) and some specific modes of ‘interdisciplinary
research’ (Brewer, 1999; Karlqvist, 1999; Bruce et al, 2005).
‘Interdisciplinarity’ in strategic research is premised upon the existence of disciplines,
which can be seen as specific ‘framings’ of knowledge indicating shared ideas about
what is relevant to be studied (Meyer, 2006). The development of ‘interdisciplinarity’
requires that different frames are combined, to generate new ‘framings’ for
knowledge, with new (or combined) sets of languages and new sets of inclusions and
exclusions. Evidence to date suggests that strategic research does not always
achieve the aspired for levels of interdisciplinarity. Reviewing the extent of
interdisciplinarity found in EU Framework 5 programmes, Bruce and colleagues
concluded that very few projects fully integrated disciplines (2004: 462). Likewise, in
a study of two interdisciplinary environmental research programmes in Switzerland
and Sweden, Pahl suggests that natural and social science researchers, “needed
several years of collaboration to become acquainted with and develop respect for the
other ‘culture’ before they could develop such [interdisciplinary] concepts” (2005:
In our own research, we have highlighted a range of levels of
interdisciplinarity, suggesting that within any research programme, different projects
will achieve different levels of interaction through time (Dixon and Sharp: 2006). A
common conclusion to all of these commentaries is that effective interdisciplinary
collaboration demands resources, and that is appropriate to be selective about which
programmes or parts of programmes could most benefit from such investment.
Collaboration with research users
Just as interdisciplinarity is premised on the existence of disciplines, so the promotion
of interactions with research users is premised on the existence of distinct categories
of ‘knowledge makers’ and ‘knowledge users’. Clearly this is an oversimplification,
and all people constantly receive, use and ‘make’ knowledge about their daily lives all
the time. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw a distinction between those whose
profession is the making and transmission of knowledge (researchers), and
everyone’s use and creation of knowledge within other roles, for example as parents,
managing directors or engineering consultants.
There is limited exploration of collaborations with research users within existing
commentaries on strategic research. Phillipson (2006) and Bruce et al. (2004) both
note that user involvement can help focus attention on ‘real world problems’ and thus
ensure the relevance of strategic research. Bruce et al., however, also note that
“user communities might have only a partial understanding of what their problem is
and, in certain cases, might compromise the quality of the research” (2004: 466).
Additional advantages arising from user involvement include access to research data,
subjects or additional funds, or a reinforcement of the interdisciplinary nature of the
research (Bruce et al., 2004). Phillipson (2006) has highlighted how ‘knowledge
exchange’ with users can vary in the nature and frequency of ‘feedback’ from users to
researchers: he identifies four models of knowledge exchange along a continuum
from a linear model in which knowledge flows from makers to users, to the ‘joint
production of knowledge’ in which knowledge development and use is an integrated
Overall, existing commentaries on user involvement can be criticised for their
generalised nature and their limited link to specific examples detailing how and what
interaction was achieved. This seems surprising. The idea that strategic research
should be democratising and relevant highlights the key importance that is placed on
the incorporation of knowledge users’ ideas in the framing and development of the
research: key questions for this paper concern, whether, how and to what effect this
is achieved in practice. To this end, and drawing on and developing both Phillipson’s
account and our work on inter-disciplinarity, different degrees of interaction with
research users are conceived as following a continuum, as shown in Table 1 below.
As we found in relation to interdisciplinarity, the different levels identified have
specifically anticipated that any one programme will include a number of different
projects achieving different levels of interaction with and between different research
users through time. We suggest that degrees of co-learning between researchers and
research users intensify as the extent of integration increases. The levels of
interaction shown on Table 1 are intended to act as a guide for the research projects
discussed in detail in the following section.
Level of user
Relevant practitioners are not involved in framing or delivering the
Relevant practitioners (perhaps linked to discipline of lead
researcher) invited to practitioner steering group with limited input
to research team decisions.
Individual research work packages work with specific ‘client’
practitioners on specific cases/projects.
Occasions when practitioners and academics representing
multiple disciplines come together to discuss research problems
or findings.
full integration
Elements of research project involve practitioners representing
multiple disciplines fully engaged in case studies and research.
Full integration
Entire project constitutes ‘action research’ in which academics &
practitioners from multiple disciplines (and ‘residents’ or
equivalent) iteratively develop a case study project and share their
Table 1 : Dynamics of user-interaction in research projects
As in relation to interdisciplinarity, an important question to be considered concerns
the normative values placed upon different levels of involvement. Is research
achieving full integration necessarily ‘better’ than that achieving, for example,
‘rhetorical involvement’?
Overview of the research programmes
The WaND (Water Cycle Management for New Developments) programme in the
United Kingdom is receiving 2.5 million pounds over 4 years funded by the
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and industry. The
purpose of WaNd is to support the delivery of integrated, sustainable water
management for new developments by provision of tools and guidelines for project
design, implementation and management. The LIUDD (Low Impact Urban Design and
Development) programme in New Zealand will receive the equivalent of around 3
million pounds from 2003-2009, funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and
Technology (FRST). It is intended to facilitate the uptake and implementation of low
impact design practices in both greenfields and brownfields developments. (For
further information on these projects see their respective web sites : LIUDD :
http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/research/urban/liudd/index.asp; WaND :
Components of collaboration
For the WaND programme, water companies, the Environment Agency (EA), and
water industry consulting engineers formed the core part of a steering group that
supported the programme bid and has met bi-annually through the programme to
hear reports on progress. The steering group has provided the programme with
additional funds, and overall ‘steering’ advice. For specific work packages, steering
group members have offered data or case studies, and sometimes come together to
contribute to discussion of research problems. In return, the steering group has
enjoyed a degree of influence over the direction of the research, as well as privileged
(i.e. early) access to research outputs. It should be noted however that there is an
element of ‘performance’ in the steering group meetings in that the academic
researchers demonstrate achievements but offer limited information about barriers
and difficulties. Drawing on this analysis, and with reference to Table 1, the overall
WaND programme can be identified as achieving ‘rhetorical involvement’. Within the
programme, some specific packages have achieved ‘single discipline involvement’,
while occasional events might be argued to work towards ‘limited integration’.
LIUDD has two groups of research users who participate in the direction and
management of the research. Both groups were formed at the beginning of the
programme. The steering committee comprises six people from local government and
relevant professions. A second and larger group of leading practitioners was formed
to provide input for the research objective of changing plans and practices. More
generally, a wider range of stakeholders has been involved in specific case studies,
participated in conference workshops on the programme or been consulted in some
way, such as through research interviews. As the research is now focusing more on
implementation, the taskforce is playing an increasingly influential role in determining
priorities and shaping the dissemination of programme findings. Overall, in respect of
Table 1, the programme has reached the stage of ‘limited integration’ with some
‘elements of full integration’ in specific case studies.
Bidding process
The WaND steering group was assembled during the bidding process, largely due to
the initiative of the lead researchers: a civil engineer and a geographer. The ‘water
industry’ emphasis of the steering group reflects the research contacts of these lead
researchers, along with the assumption that the lead ‘users’ of the research would be
this industry. Most steering group members provided additional sponsorship of the
research, and this leverage was seen as important in securing funding for the
research. A consulting engineer was appointed as steering group chair.
The emphasis of the WaND project on water cycle management in new
developments highlights another group of potential research users to whom limited
attention was given at this time: these are stakeholders involved in the planning and
construction of new developments. The one exception to this is the Construction
Industry Research and Investigation Association (CIRIA) that was a steering group
member from the start.
Similarly for the LIUDD programme, the steering committee was drawn together
during the development of the bid by invitation from the leaders of the programme: an
environmental scientist and a planner. The membership reflected key individuals in
the Auckland region who were perceived to have either a stake in the programme or
be influential in practice. Membership of the taskforce was determined once the
programme commenced. National agencies such as the Ministry for the Environment
and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment were invited, given their
interest in changing design and development practices, along with leading
practitioners. Membership of the taskforce has been kept deliberately fluid to enable
flexibility over the six years duration and to accommodate changing interests. Within
specific case studies, of course, there have been other research users involved as
participants in particular projects. These have included developers, councils and
Organisation and Operation of work programmes
The WaND steering group meets once every six months. Meetings usually involve
lunch and approximately 3 hours of discussion around a packed agenda. Steering
group members are presented with short reports on the achievements of each work
package and wider discussion of general issues such as dissemination. In addition,
specific work packages are sometimes invited to present findings or tools at greater
Some links between researchers on specific work packages and particular steering
group members pre-dated the bid, for example, it was recognised from the start that
particular water companies would provide data which would inform calculations about
future demand management. Other alliances between researchers and steering
group members developed during the research and led to work package case
studies, for example, in relation to public perceptions about water management.
Some work packages also ran ‘workshops’ to which steering group members were
invited to discuss specific research problems or issues in greater depth.
The steering group’s limited involvement in the planning and construction of new
developments became apparent in the search for overarching case studies to bridge
the activities of the different work packages. In particular, while a number of case
studies of sustainable urban drainage schemes could be identified, far more
difficulties were experienced in identifying case studies in which water related
innovations had been plumbed into homes. While these difficulties prompted some
discussion about extending the scope of the steering group, only two new members
were recruited (both from local authorities). Possible explanations for the lack of
action here may be that researchers had limited incentive to identify new research
users once the bid had been funded, that researchers lacked the contacts in these
practitioner areas such that they could make a convincing case for practitioner
investment of time, or that the offer of involvement on the steering group was of
limited appeal to such practitioners because the scope and aims of the research had
already been determined. Indeed, the only occasional attendance of those members
who were recruited tends to suggest that the latter is the case.
In the LIUDD programme, both the steering committee and taskforce meet
approximately every six months. The steering committee meets for up to 3 hours. It
receives short reports from the research objective leaders and is asked to assist with
strategic decisions about future directions. The group has not been overly effective in
influencing the research process or engaging fully in it. Members have not always
been able to attend meetings and, in retrospect, the researchers have not made use
of the committee in the way that they might have. By contrast, the taskforce has
become a highly energetic group. The meetings begin at 10am and run through to
4pm. While the research team funds some members to attend, many are funded by
their own organisation to participate. The meetings typically include reports from
researchers on their latest work, brief reports from the participants about related work
in their organisations, and discussion around questions posed by the researchers as
well as issues raised by the participants. Taskforce members are consulted when
decisions may need to be made on determining work priorities for the next few
months. The on-going governance of the programme is now being reviewed, given
that the work direction is determined for the remaining three years of funding.
Production and dissemination of knowledge
At the time of writing (November 2006) WaND steering group members’ involvement
in knowledge production has been limited: very few have assumed joint authorship of
publications. In contrast, facilitating the dissemination of WaND outputs has been
seen as one of the main functions of the steering group. The membership of the
steering group ensures that WaND outputs are available to a range of parts of the
water industry. Tools resulting from the research were shown at steering group
meetings, while researchers disseminate research outputs to steering group
members before they enter the public domain. Steering group members are also
expected to be actively involved in the conference at which the results of the WaND
research will be presented. In addition, the steering group has provided a means for
WaND outputs to further disseminated to other research users, for example, reports
on the progress of WaND have been included in specific practitioner publications
such as the EA’s ‘demand management bulletin’. Finally, CIRIA has been recruited to
take a lead in the dissemination of research outputs to the construction industry.
The LIUDD steering committee has had little involvement in the production and
dissemination of knowledge although it has been consulted about how dissemination
of research findings should take place. However, as for the WaND steering
committee, some members have had involvement in the production of knowledge in
specific case studies or projects that fall within the brief of one of the research
objectives. By comparison, the taskforce has become a critical means of engaging
with practitioners as end users. The group is acting very much as an
information-sharing network that is extending into the practitioner community and
developing relationships with other relevant on-going projects within government.
Such is the level of interest that people ask the research team if they can attend. As
key users of knowledge produced in the programme, the taskforce is consulted
regularly on the best means of dissemination of material.
Aside from published outputs, such as refereed publications and conference papers,
and case studies, a third means by which knowledge is generated and produced in
the LIUDD programme is the development of learning networks as a collaborative
learning tool. The aim of these groups, such as the current one on rain tanks, is to
facilitate learning that will result in longer-term transformative change (van Roon et
al., 2006). Production and dissemination of knowledge in the LIUDD programme can
thus be viewed as quite multi-dimensional.
The engagement of research users in knowledge production of large-scale applied
programmes raises several issues for consideration. First, the choice of who is a
‘relevant’ research user requires scrutiny: in particular, the extent to which they are
drawn from one or several areas of practice, and whether new users can be recruited
as new understandings of the problem develop. The experience of both programmes
suggests that the selection of research users is initially defined by leading
researchers, and may be from one area of practice. In addition, the fixed nature of
research objectives can make recruiting new steering group members difficult. On
the other hand, the LIUDD experience in deliberately keeping the membership of the
taskforce group flexible has proven insightful and highly beneficial.
A second issue relates to the contribution that the research users offer the
programmes such as ideas or their equivalents in terms of money or commitment,
and whether it is realistic to expect large time inputs from research users. The
experience of both programmes suggests that research users have a key role to play
through their sponsorship and providing data or case studies. The provision of ideas
is highly contingent on their expertise and may be more limited. Pressure of other
work commitments is certainly an issue for research users. However, when they
perceive direct benefits such as access to new knowledge, they are willing
participants and can be significant contributors.
A third issue that arises is whether research users are offered influence over or
privileged access to the research and how these commitments are balanced with the
transparency requirements of publicly funded research. A key benefit for research
users in WaND was their involvement in framing the research before the bid. Once
this involvement was secured then users were more committed to steering the project
(in the appropriate direction) through to completion. In New Zealand, there is a
long-standing tradition of rapid dissemination of new practice throughout the
practitioner community so benefits of engaging in the research process are perhaps
more marginal. Nonetheless, research users, particularly those that might be
regarded as more innovative, have been keen to participate as contributors in the
original conception of the research or in the research process as partners in case
These three issues raise a fourth issue of whether the involvement outlined really
secures ‘relevance’ for the research. WaND is relevant, particularly to the water
industry. However, it is also relevant to a number of other research users, and
probably could have been more relevant to these users had their involvement been
secured at the inception of the research. This conclusion does not undermine the
value of the research that has taken place, but it does highlight linkages that need to
be established if the research is to be further developed. The LIUDD programme, on
the other hand, has been able to build leverage and establish linkages with other
research activities and users through a more flexible contracting process. In this way,
it has been able to obtain outreach that otherwise could not have been achieved. The
contrast between WaND and LIUDD highlights the benefits of greater flexibility in
securing relevant ongoing research user involvement. The need for such flexibility
may be in tension with the clarity of outputs required to secure research funding.
Finally, if researchers are committed to producing knowledge that will transform
practice, they are highly dependent on engagement with research users. This
demands the creation of relationships that inevitably blur distinctions between the
‘knowledge makers’ and ‘knowledge users’. While this can be uncomfortable at times
and demand new ways of working with research users, it is only through intentionally
interactive processes of co-learning that transformative change is likely to occur.
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