The Value of Academics Working with Government: Lessons from Collaboration on Cybersecurity
William H. Dutton with Carolin Weisser Harris
Six of the benefits of academics collaborating with government include realising the value of: 1) complementary perspectives and knowledge sets; 2) different communication skills and styles; 3) distributing the load; 4) different time scales; 5) generating impact; and 6) tackling multifaceted problems.
Our Global Cybersecurity Capacity Centre (GCSCC) at Oxford University recently completed a short but intense period of working with a UK Government team focused on cybersecurity capacity building with foreign governments. In one of our last meetings around our final reports, we had a side discussion – not part of the report – about the differences between academic researchers and our colleagues working in government departments. Of course, some academics end up in government and vice versa, but individuals quickly adapt to the different cultures and working patterns of government or academia if they choose to stay.
For example, the differences in our time horizons were not controversial, as some of us on the academic team have been working on particular issues for decades while our government colleagues are focused on the start and finish a project over a short, finite time, such as lasting one year or even less. These different time horizons are only one of many other challenges tied to the very different ways of working, but what about the benefits?
What is the value of fostering more academic-government collaboration? Here we were not as quick to come up with clear answers. But collaboration between academia and government is more difficult than working within one’s own institutional context. There must be benefits to justify the greater commitments of time and effort to collaborate. On reflection, and from our experience, a number of real benefits and taken-for-granted assumptions come to mind. The all ways to realise the benefits of:
- Complementary Perspectives and Knowledge Sets
Our focus on cybersecurity, for example, is inherently tied to both academic research and policy and practice. By bringing actors together across academia and government, there is less risk of working in a way that is blind to the perspectives of other sectors. It might be impossible to shape policy and practice if the academic research is not alert to the issues most pertinent to government. Likewise, governments cannot establish credible policy or regulatory initiatives without an awareness of the academic controversies and consensus around relevant concepts and issues.
2. Different Communication Skills and Styles
Academic research can get lost in translation if academics are not confronted with what resonates well with governmental staff and leadership. What is understood and misunderstood in moving across academic and government divides? Think of the acronyms used in government versus academia. How can assumptions and work be better translated to each set of participants? Working together forces a confrontation with these communication issues, as well as the different styles in the two groups. Comparing the slides prepared by academics with those of government staff can provide a sense of people coming from different planets, not just different sectors.
3. Distributing the Load – Time to Read Everything?
My academic colleagues noticed that many in the government simply did not have the time to read extremely long and often dense academic papers or books, much less to write a blog about collaborative research! It was far better to have brief executive oriented briefing papers. Better yet would be a short 10-minute oral explanation of any research or a discussion in the form of a webinar. Do they need to know the finest details of a methodology, or to simply have a basic understanding of the method and trust that the specific methodology followed was state of the practice, done professionally, or peer reviewed? Can they quickly move to: What did they find? Being able to trust the methods of the academics saved an enormous amount of time for the governmental participants.
Likewise, did the academics want to take the time to read very long and detailed administrative reports and government documents? Clearly, they also appreciated the brief summary or distillation of any texts that were not central to the study. Unless academics were focused on organizational politics and management, they often do not need to know why the government has chosen to support or not support particular work, but trust that there is a green light to go ahead, and their colleagues in government will try to keep the work going.
So, the two groups read and were interested in reading and hearing different kinds of reports and documentation, about different issues, and at different levels. Working together, they could then cover more ground in the time of the project and better understand each other’s needs and what each could contribute to the collaboration.
4. Different Time Scales
As mentioned above, another aspect of time was the different time scales of academic research versus governmental studies. One of our colleagues had been working on Internet studies for over four decades, but a short governmental study could draw easily on that investment in time. Everyone did not need to spend decades on research.
Academics can’t change the focus of their research too rapidly without losing their basis of expertise. The cycle of attention in government may move towards the interests of an academic from time to time and then it is important to connect governmental staff with the right researchers to take advantage of their different time scales.
The different time scales do not undermine collaboration, but they put a premium on being able to connect governmental research with relevant academic research that is at a level and at a time at which the findings can be valuable to policy or practice. Academics cannot chase policy issues as they will always be late to the debate. But governmental researchers can find researchers doing relevant work that is sufficiently mature to inform the questions faced by the government.
5. Generating Impact
Academics are increasingly interested in having an impact, which has been defined as ‘having an effect, benefit, or contribution to economic, social, cultural, and other aspects of the lives of citizens and society beyond contributions to academic research’ (Hutchinson 2019). Is their research read, understood, or acted upon? Does it make a difference to the sector of relevance to their research? Working directly with government can enhance the likelihood of governmental actors being aware of and reactive to academic research. Collaboration does not guarantee greater productivity (Lee and Bozeman 2005). However, it has the potential to support the greater dissemination of the research across government and create greater awareness of the evidence behind the policy advice of academic researchers.
Of course, governments do not simply write reports to tick boxes. They also wish to have an impact on policy or practice. Working with academics can help gain insights and credibility that can make reports more novel, interesting, and meaningful for enacting change in policy and practice. They can also gain a better sense of the limits of academic research as researchers explain the lack of evidence in some areas and the needs for additional work.
6. Tackling Multifaceted Problems
Cybersecurity is not only tied to academia and government. Many other actors are involved. We found that our partners in government had different contacts with different networks of actors than we had and vice versa. Putting together these networks of actors enabled us to better embed the multiplicity of actors – other governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, business and industry, and experts in cybersecurity – in our joint work.
The potential benefits are many, but there are risks. Participants need to care a great deal about the common work and be committed to the area in order to overcome the challenges. That said, the different time frames, communication styles, and more that confront collaboration between government and academia not only can be addressed but also bring some benefits to the collaboration.
Cybersecurity is one of many policy areas that requires engagement with various stakeholders, and for meaningful engagement to develop you need to build trustful relationships. Projects like ours where partners from different stakeholder groups (in this case academia and government) work together can enable building those trustful relationships and strengthen the potential for others to trust the outputs of joint projects.
Hutchinson, A. (2019), ‘Metrics and Research Impact’, pp. 91-103 in Science Libraries in the Self-Service Age. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102033-3.00008-8
Lee, S., and Bozeman, B. (2005), ‘The Impact of Research Collaboration on Scientific Productivity’ Social Studies of Science, 35: DOI: 10.1177/0306312705052359 Online at: http://sss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/5/673