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From working in exploration projects to playing in an orchestra: Tips for science-practice collaboration

Posted at 04/03/2021 by Juliette Cortes Arevalo

Roula Dambrink and Maartje van Dijk, are the All-Risk former and current program officers from the Netherlands Organisation of scientific research (NWO). They both have a technical background and gradually moved towards more facilitator and coordinating roles to help teams work together. This blog shares three practical tips from their role in NWO and their personal experiences.

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Juliette Cortes Arevalo

The NWO strategy for 2019-2022 promotes collaboration between science and practice, among other societal actors.

The Netherlands Organisation of Scientific research (NWO) has multiple funding schemes so that science and societal actors can work together in addressing today’s world challenges. Besides a strong disciplinary basis, NWO promotes more than ever before collaboration between disciplines, across sectors and throughout the knowledge chain – from fundamental to practice-oriented research. The so-called Perspectief programs are one of these funding schemes to support researchers, public and private actors working together in addressing a common challenge within the knowledge and innovation agendas of top sectors such as water and climate. Once a proposal is awarded, Maartje and Roula are some of the NWO side officers facilitating the collaborations between science and practice. In such a role, they have been involved in All-Risk (implementation of new risk standards in Dutch flood protection program). They also joined other research programmes such as RiverCare (assessing the effects of room for the river like interventions),  Bridging Thresholds (developing multipurpose biodegradable structures generating ecosystem services), and many more.

However, the interactions between science and practice do not come without challenges. For smoother collaboration and more impactful research, they share three practical tips from their role in NWO and their personal experiences.

Maartje working at an exploration project.

Find common ground by sharing each others' expectations and experience

As a geologist, Maartje coordinated exploration projects in Sweden. For her, projects’ success in unique technical achievements and (socio-)economic value is reached by working together and bringing out the people’s added value to achieve a common goal. Similarly, NWO research programmes have groundbreaking proposals for exploring the boundaries of existing knowledge and applications towards a sustainable and climate change adapted society. However, a granted research proposal is not enough to ensure good collaboration. Every research program should have an open conversation between the researchers, the users and everyone else who has a stake in the programme. Questions in this conversation may include how the collaboration (can be) started? What is everyone’s interpretation of the proposal? What can you contribute? What is needed to achieve the common goal? What do you expect from the collaboration, individually and as a group? A clear motivating goal and as much as possible realistic plan are essential for creating connections and continuing the research with enthusiasm.

Roula Dambrink playing as a freelance harpist.

Attune your communication and listen to each other to let everyone play their part

Roula was first an applied researcher in the Geological Survey of the Netherlands. Then, she joined NWO as program officer. She recently moved to Wageningen Economic Research (WUR) to start as Head of the Green economy and land use group. Roula has combined her professional career with playing as a freelance harpist for several symphony orchestras and choirs over the years. Whether it is on science or music, she enjoys combining the added value of every team member. As in an orchestra, the research programs bring together different people who should speak and listen to play their part and create a more significant impact together. Communication is critical, and that goes for the users or stakeholders as much as for the researchers. Keep in mind, to who are you talking? What is their background knowledge? Make sure to tailor your presentation, and the agenda of the meeting, to what you want to achieve as a group. Yes, it might take more time, but this is worth it when you in such a way can create real collaboration and a more valuable end result.

Some of the All-Risk researchers and users on a field visit to one of the case studies.

Going to each other's environment to better understand the use of science results

For the researchers to understand what is needed and the users to realise what they can do with the science results, sometimes more than a presentation is needed. For instance, spending time at the users’ offices, so that researchers work one day a week or one day in two weeks at the users’. However, also the other way around works. The users could accompany researchers on the field or visit their experimental setups. Those alternative ways of discussing the results also help make the connections, better communicate, and align expectations, so to say.

Last modified: 22/03/2021