The article

In the face of reduced public funding of science and increased demands for ‘value for money’, academic researchers find themselves hard pressed to produce relevant research and demonstrate their utility to society. These pressures are particularly prominent in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) where practical value is frequently questioned. This article investigates how HSS can be made ‘relevant’ through the qualitative case study of a funding instrument fostering immersive collaboration between HSS researchers and non-academic actors. The research is a qualitative study based on semi-structured interviews with the funded researchers and representatives of the funding agency. The paper provides insights into the motivations and experiences of HSS researchers embarking on the quest for relevance and the difficulties they encounter. In particular, the study finds that the key challenge for HSS researchers lies in balancing the level of engagement required to be relevant with the requirements of an academic career.

The researcher

Merle Jacob

Professor of Research Policy at the Business Administration Department

Lund University

The interview

Merle, thank you very much for accepting this invitation to have a coffee break with me, how are you doing?

I’m doing fine and it is great to be here. I’m having a delicious Colombian black coffee, as usual, are you having any coffee? Yes, I’m having some Nespresso Coffee and I have a nice new coffee cup so it is good. Nice.

Merle, I want to talk with you about your paper, being there in the flex. Could you please tell me what the paper was about?

The paper is about a research funding instrument that funds researchers from the humanities and the social sciences to work from two to three years in a firm or in a non-governmental organisation, or even a government agency. And they work both on a research project of their own design as well as they work part time in the firm. I think they spend one day a week working on tasks as an employee in the firm and they spend the other the time in the firm doing research.

And could you please elaborate more on this concept of flex, why you think this concept is so  fitting to the paper?

I borrowed it from the name of the instrument, the instrument is called flexit and I tried to spin out from that and see the whole experience of the researchers as being in a kind of a flex situation, one day being reflexive about their collaboration with non-academic actors as well as being reflexive about their own sort of condition of whether they want to stay at the University of whether they want to spend the rest of their careers working in the non-academic setting. So there is a lot of play on their concept of flexing to pick up on different aspects of the researchers experience being outside of the academy. 

I find this concept  personally fascinating, could you please tell us the main findings of your paper?

What we found was start to the most researchers who did this who had this experience felt that they identified skills that they had that they hadn’t thought they had until they were in the flex, as so many of them usually think of themselves as being experts on the issue they do their research on and focus on the empirical sort of expertise they have but, when one does a PhD one acquires a whole range of other kinds of skills, which are much more useful out there in the flex, that they are sometimes at the University and and those skills are often very difficult for researchers, even people in mid-career to identify so next the experience of being in the flex help people to identify other kinds of skills that they possess that they hadn’t really picked up on.

I can relate to that too so could you share some parts of your personal experience or motivation that you had when you wrote the paper?

I am a researcher who works with understanding how to research funding shapes researchers careers and how it changes their research trajectories o strengths them and creates opportunities for further development, so for me the instrument is a special instance of collaboration,  we have not had any similar kinds of instruments in Sweden before, so it was a chance to have an intensive look at people who have done this, find out their motivations and find out how it impacted on their careers afterwards.

That’s great to know thank you so much for clarifying it and that finally I’m asking you about the police implications of your paper.

Mainly the main policy implications should be directed toward research funders, research councils as we call them here I think is the most surprising finding is that true and instrument like flexit what happens is that the research funder provides opens the doors to organisations who don’t usually commissioned research and give them access to research funders,  infrastructure for funding and their expertise to commission research and and they do the selection on behalf of this organisation so that most of the transaction cost of learning how to commission research, the non-academic host organisation doesn’t have to to spend time and the resources on that. So the collaboration than becomes not just a collaboration between the researcher in the host organisation but also between the host organisation and the research Council and that is an aspect of collaborate and funding research that many people miss and particularly policy-makers because it’s often not understood that in order to commission research one has to have certain types of skills and organisations that need research may not always have those skills or even the resources to acquire those skills, so there are two kinds of enabling factor that this instrument provides.

Sounds great, win-win for everybody, both policy makers and researchers, I’m really happy about that, it was really nice to read your paper,  thank you once again for your time and for those valuable insights. I wish you all the best in your future research and hope to see you again in a coffee break.

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