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PhD Talk For AcademicTransfer: Tips For Successful Collaborations With Government Partners

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Tips for successful collaborations with government partners

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

In my field, collaborations with government partners are very common. In fact, the majority of my research projects so far have been funded by and in collaboration with the government (as they own the bridges and need research to address their concerns).

Just like I did last month for industry collaborations, today I would like to focus on what you can do to make your collaborations with government partners a success. Again, I will be organizing my tips in the order of time:

  1. Understand the different political undercurrents: Many decisions in the public sector will be influenced by the current political climate. In same countries, the government bodies have a more stable course than in other countries, where the research agenda can be fully dictated by politics. Whether or not a research idea can be funded, can depend on the key relevant themes of the government, or may need to be aligned with a research road map developed around topics that the current government finds relevant for the country.
  2. Understand the different objectives: The main objective for your government partner will usually be to save the country money in the long run. Additional objectives can be the development of critical skills in the country, as well as get short-term positive outcomes. For you as a researcher, the objectives may be to figure out a hypothesis you have, expand your research group with new knowledge, publish one ore more good papers from the project, or put a theoretical idea into practice. Identifying the objectives on both sides at the beginning of the project is crucial for success.
  3. Understand how the budget is evaluated: Considering that one of the main objectives for your government partner could be to save money in the long run, it is important that you think about the cost-benefit balance of your proposed project. If you can include in your proposal or initial pitch a first estimate of how much the government can save when implementing the idea you are pursuing, you can have a strong case to obtain funding.
  4. Balance practical and research-oriented deliverables: Based on the different objectives, you may need to think about the deliverables both in terms of what the government is interested in (for example, a final document with policy recommendations outlining their benefit to society) as well as technical and research-oriented deliverables, such as the reports from your experiments.
  5. Talk about intellectual property before you get started: Depending on the country, it may be policy that all publicly generated knowledge should be publicly available. If you have an idea for which you would want to apply for a patent, a government-funded project may not be the way to go. Or, you should clearly negotiate what will be public and what not at the initial stages and before signing all agreements.
  6. Keep a clear communication: I know I am repeating myself from last month – but for any collaboration, clear communication is key. For government funded projects, you may have an agreed number of review and progress meetings per year, as well as an annual meeting with a larger committee that reviews and comments on your work.
  7. Keep expectations clear: Be realistic when describing your research project and intended deliverables, and be realistic within the budget you could realistically obtain for the project. You may have a major research line for which you plan to make major steps forward in the next ten years, but you will not be able to address all your open research questions with one project. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver – and keep this risk in mind as you negotiate the budget.
  8. Find solutions when things do not go as planned: I have never had a project in which everything went as planned – such is the nature of research. Certainly, you will have outlined various alternative routes at the grant writing stage, but if you run into a major problem, it is important to communicate clearly about what is not going well, as well as to propose a number of solutions as a basis for negotiating a path forward.
  9. Have a method for sharing information: If you are working on a government project, there may be restrictions on the use of their sensitive data that you may need, or there may be the requirement that all publicly funded research should be publicly available, including the data and code that you generate. At the initial stages of the project, it is important to discuss how you will be sharing information, who will be responsible for which part of the information, and how often the data will be updated. You also will need to discuss how eventually the data will be published, hosted, and made accessible.
  10. Work towards the intended deliverables: It is often difficult to meet deadlines for a project, but often you will find that the annual public budgets require you to deliver something by a certain date of the year, so the responsible government employees can approve your deliverable and approve the execution of the payment. You will need to keep a close eye on this timeline, and make sure there is sufficient time to discuss the deliverables with your government partner, allow their time to review, address their review comments, and then submit the approved document. Make sure you have your project management skills sharpened!
  11. Round off or renegotiate the timeline: If your research is significantly delayed, you will need to renegotiate the timeline. Such renegotiation can be difficult, as you typically will not receive more budget, but will need to move forward with limited resources to recover the time lost in the delays. If everything has progressed as planned, you can move towards rounding off of the project. Make sure you know very well which documents and deliverables are necessary to close the project.
  12. Keep the connection warm: Just as for your industry partners, it is important to keep in touch after the project, even if you are not directly planning to submit a follow-up project. It is always nice to see how your ideas will be put into practice if you stay in touch with your government collaborator, and, of course, who knows which other opportunities may arise for future collaborations.

Have you worked on research for or in collaboration with the government? What is your experience? Which pitfalls should be avoided, and what did you enjoy most?

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