Scottish Environment Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI): analysis

Reports the findings of Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) commissioned research to analyse how the five Main Research Providers (MRPs) relate to their collective identity as Scottish Environment Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI), how they benefit from the collective identity, and how the SEFARI identity can best contribute to the next cycle of strategic research funding.

3 Interview Findings

In the second phase of the study we sought to augment the observations from our desk-based analyses with findings from 26 semi-structured interviews, conducted in the autumn of 2019.  We sought the views of four stakeholder groups (Scottish Government/RESAS, MRPs, CoEs and SEFARI Gateway) on the dynamics of the Strategic Research Portfolio and their individual and collective contributions to it. Quotes from interviewees are presented in italics.

We present the main findings as follows: (i) we identify different actors within the Strategic Research Portfolio, paying particular attention to MRPs' views on the Strategic Research Programme and the roles and interactions of MRPs and CoEs; (ii) we elucidate different actors' perceptions of SEFARI and SEFARI Gateway; and (iii) we investigate stakeholder perceptions of the Strategic Research Portfolio governance arrangements that were the subject of the desk-based analysis in Section 2. 

We tailored our questions (see Appendix 2) to the four stakeholder groups as follows:

  • MRPs and CoEs were asked for their perceptions of Strategic Research Portfolio governance, their contributions to the Scottish Government policy arena, their interactions with internal and external stakeholders, and the perceived challenges of achieving a balance between the scientific excellence and policy-relevance of their outputs. 
  • Current and former SEFARI Gateway staff were asked about their knowledge exchange coordination roles within the Strategic Research Programme and across the Strategic Research Portfolio. 
  • Scottish Government (primarily RESAS) were asked about the design and governance of the current Strategic Research Portfolio and the balance among its component parts, paying particular attention to the key differences between the Strategic Research Programme and CoE contributions.

3.1 Actors and dynamics of the Strategic Research Portfolio

The findings in this section address MRPs' views on the Strategic Research Programme and the perceived roles and interactions of MRPs and CoEs within the wider Strategic Research Portfolio.

3.1.1 MRPs' views on the Strategic Research Programme

All MRPs were able to articulate, in a general way, the link from their RESAS-funded Strategic Research Programme themes to Scottish Government policy areas.  This link was much better articulated by those who identified specific Scottish Government policy groups as their immediate stakeholders – i.e., those that would naturally receive attention as part of an MRP's individual mission.

The question "what is the Strategic Research Programme?" was posed to our MRP interviewees and generated answers ranging from "a pot of money" to "a lever for additional external (MRP) resources" to "a network of scientists".  None of these responses approached the idea of "a coherent programme" expressed by RESAS

Those responding in terms of the Strategic Research Programme being a "pot of money" conveyed the sense that scientists were conducting research on behalf of their individual institutes, within the RESAS funding envelope.  There was little sense that the Strategic Research Programme was constituted as a consortium set up to pursue goals above and beyond those of its members:

"It's not like a Horizon 2020 or RCUK proposal where (we say) 'this is what we want to achieve'" - MRP  

Those who saw the Strategic Research Programme as a "lever for additional resources" understood that this included creation of policy linkages within and beyond Scotland, not just for their own institute:

"We argue very strongly, both institutionally and personally, that the Strategic Research Programme acts (not only) as a means of us levering additional research funding but acts as a means of us levering additional linkages into other aspects, not necessarily just of Scottish policy but other policy spheres whether it's in the UK or Europe" - MRP

The "network of scientists" answer draws attention to the bigger question of whether the Strategic Research Programme can be seen as an organisational actor in its own right (e.g., a consortium, rather than simply a network of scientists benefitting from their institutes' RESAS funding):

"I would say it's probably a series of actors rather than a single one. I don't think it's probably achieved a unitary state as an individual actor"MRP

Underpinning Capacity funding was not included the main scope of this study, but it was mentioned several times in answers to Strategic Research Programme questions.[18]  In most cases respondents saw Underpinning Capacity as being closely aligned with the Strategic Research Programme, in the sense that you can't have the latter without the former. One Scottish Government respondent also noted some "opacity" as to what was considered Underpinning Capacity, and the use of this category as a "flexible fund" was mentioned in this context. Much of what MRPs do under the heading of Strategic Research Programme could be viewed as the provision of underpinning capacity (research infrastructures, including people and skills) for RESAS-funded science. 

3.1.2 Roles and interactions of MRPs and CoEs 

In contrast to the broad thematic approach of the Strategic Research Programme, Centres of Expertise focus on "rapid response" to pressing policy questions and challenges pertinent to specific Scottish Government policy teams and other immediate stakeholders.  In keeping with their individual operating models, they are involved (according to their different operating models) in providing direct policy advice, commissioning short-term research projects or maintaining their own responsive research capacity. The fact that the CoE consortia are distinct organisational entities with their own governance structures insulates them, and perhaps isolates them, from the wider governance concerns of the Strategic Research Portfolio.  

We asked MRPs and CoEs about their interactions in the context of the Strategic Research Portfolio.  Both groups were aware of the desirability of these interactions while noting that the Strategic Research Programme and CoEs were historically uncoupled due to their separate funding and governance arrangements and different research timescales.  A Scottish Government interviewee commented on this apparent disconnect:

"Yes I think I think that's fair to say (that there's a disconnect) although we expect, but maybe have to push a bit, that (between) these strategic researchers and Centres of Expertise that there's a continuous exchange"SG.

Another Scottish Government respondent advocated structural change in the balance of long and short term research across the Strategic Research Portfolio:

"So you know these two things sit so far apart from each other. There is a massive challenge in trying to bring these two things together. And this is part of what we're seeing right now is that policy can only naturally see about two or three years in advance, if you're really looking. And obviously we have examples at the minute where two or three years feels pretty far off.  But researchers tend not to think in those same timescales, so we need to find (balance) between those.  And so I think what we need to be able to do is have a much better mixture of commissioning than we do currently have, where 60-70 percent of our funding is in strategic longer term research"SG.

Competition for scarce funding is an obvious source of tension between MRPs and CoEs:

"I think that's where we see our frustration with the Centres of Expertise lie, and the funding structure has been very prescriptive for RESAS, which resulted in us being excluded from the (named) Centre of Expertise. We thought we had a very valid case to be members" - MRP

CoE respondents were generally enthusiastic about cross-CoE collaboration, seeing this as both desirable and possible, albeit somewhat constrained by incompatible funding models and project durations across the different CoEs. Coordination across CoEs, and ultimately across the Strategic Research Portfolio, also helps mitigate what one CoE respondent referred to as "stakeholder fatigue".  Another CoE interviewee noted the importance of trust in establishing effective cross-CoE working arrangements: 

"we have to maintain a relationship with (other CoEs), so that customers don't get confused about who they should come to. And that comes down to personal relations. And whether the Centres want to work together or don't want to work together. And that tends to be driven by personal choice"

We asked both MRP and CoE interviewees about the existence of tension between maintaining both scientific excellence and policy relevance in their research outputs.  Such tension was generally acknowledged and respondents generally agreed that achieving the balance between excellence and relevance requires a nuanced approach to incentives at the institutional level.  CoEs were generally confident about achieving the excellence-relevance balance, perhaps due to their operational models of choosing projects and participants in a way that minimises tensions:

"And so our model has always been 'get the community functioning', and that's the science community and the policy community to build the network and then identify what the challenges are, what the key priority areas are. Then, through the community, work to a consensus of what that means, and then by having that consensus know what the output should be for maximum impact" - CoE

Sectoral differences between universities and the MRPs were also acknowledged in the excellence vs relevance context, partly as a result of university-based scientists needing their outputs to qualify for REF assessments. Extension of UKRI funding eligibility to MRP-based scientists is not yet seen as promoting the more individualistic academic focus perceived as exiting in universities:

"I think I wouldn't see it (MRPs) like a university segment where their focus is very much more on the fundamental research but (also) in a very much more individualistic way. I've always seen university departments as being led by the individuals and the research is very much led by the individuals, whereas in the institutes everybody knows that there is this an overriding Government program and things have to fit into that. So it is a different kind of environment" - MRP

3.2 Perceptions of SEFARI and SEFARI Gateway

All four of our stakeholder groups (MRPs, CoEs and SEFARI Gateway and Scottish Government) were asked (see Appendix 2) for their views on the vision that inspired the introduction of the SEFARI and SEFARI Gateway entities, and on the realised and potential future value of these entities to stakeholder activities and interactions across the Strategic Research Portfolio.  The main findings are grouped thematically below.

3.2.1 SEFARI

MRP interviewees generally understood the vision behind SEFARI as being the creation of an organisation to better represent the collective activities of the MRPs in delivering RESAS-funded science (as represented by the Strategic Research Programme).  This vision did not appear to encompass the individual and collective activities of CoEs in the Strategic Research Portfolio.

When asked whether, or how well, this vision had been realised, interviewees consistently noted the emergence of the SEFARI identity as a collective brand for the MRPs. 

MRPs generally embraced SEFARI as their collective brand. Most understood it as applying only to their RESAS-funded activities (represented by the Strategic Research Programme), and not to other partnerships that they might enter with each other and with third parties:

"We have a wide range of other national and international partnerships and SEFARI is seen as just one of those partnerships rather than an overall branding for the Institutes" MRP

CoEs that recognised SEFARI as a collective brand for MRPs also understood its scope to be restricted to the Strategic Research Programme and therefore not of direct relevance to their activities.  CoEs generally engaged with individual institutes rather than with the SEFARI collective:

"So in what way has SEFARI impacted (my CoE)? Not really at all because I still deal individually with people from (the MRPs). Obviously the SEFARI collective, as such, don't have anybody in (my CoE)" CoE.

One Scottish Government respondent expressed concern that the SEFARI identity drew insufficient attention to RESAS-funded science:

"In my book because the very thing we didn't want was, we didn't want the institutes; we wanted the program to be at the front" - SG

3.2.2 SEFARI Gateway

There was little consensus among interviewees around the difference between SEFARI and the SEFARI Gateway. This confusion may be due to the "chicken and egg" relationship between the two entities.  It appears that the SEFARI brand was developed and applied to MRPs in the context of the Strategic Research Programme, with little subsequent development of the SEFARI vision and mission.  Meanwhile the brand was quickly applied to SEFARI Gateway, which could draw on the CKEI governance structure and funding, effectively retrofitting the CKEI mission to SEFARI

We asked interviewees about their expectations for SEFARI Gateway at its inception, and how these expectations had been met in its first years of operation. Four general areas were identified:

(i) Delivery of research products and information

Scottish Government and MRP interviewees had strong transactional expectations.  Both RESAS and the MRPs expected SEFARI Gateway to deliver on its CKEI-derived obligations (principally with respect to the Strategic Research Programme): 

"And part of the whole thing about wanting to improve knowledge exchange and translation was to get the institutes -  you know, they are the people who were doing the work - to do the communication. And SEFARI Gateway is part of that" - SG

(ii) Promotion of the delivery organisation(s)

Scottish Government and MRPs had similar expectations but differed in their views on how well these expectations were being met.  Scottish Government expected the SEFARI Gateway to provide a "shopfront" for RESAS-funded science, exemplified by the Strategic Research Programme.  They expressed the need for the value of their investment in research to be recognised by the public – effectively nominating the Strategic Research Portfolio delivery organisations (including the Strategic Research Programme, CoEs and RESAS) as the ones to be collectively promoted.   

MRPs were largely content with the MRP-oriented promotion provided by SEFARI Gateway, but did acknowledge the need to expand efforts to promote the wider collective:

"The focus on Gateway, delivering the Gateway, having to focus on (the wider) Portfolio, was very much part of the last review process (2018 SEFARI Review). It was just very strongly signalled that this money came from Scottish Government to promote the wider entities, include other universities as well" - MRP

(iii) Development of collective identity

The expectation that SEFARI Gateway might promote cohesion among the Strategic Research Portfolio delivery organisations was expressed more strongly by CoEs and SEFARI Gateway itself than by Scottish Government and the MRPsSEFARI Gateway characterised the challenge as one of relationship building with its internal stakeholders:

"So that was one thing that we did, come in and create a platform for knowledge exchange that nobody else would have had the capacity to be able to do. The same with the Centres of Expertise and having those wider conversations and making sure that we're aligned to do things collectively (or not, in cases where that doesn't work). That all takes time and that's all about relationship building" SEFARI Gateway

CoEs generally appreciated and valued the integrative efforts of SEFARI Gateway:

To have this coordinated, bigger, much bigger approach is invaluable and I couldn't imagine actually going back and not having it. Even for the Centres it's valuable. Because it's a way of allowing the Centres to work together and get a coherent message across"CoE

(iv) Development of external stakeholder networks

Scottish Government, MRP and CoE interviewee groups did not strongly articulate their initial expectations for SEFARI Gateway to work on cultivating and extending external stakeholder networks.  SEFARI Gateway itself set the direction in this regard:

"We were engaged around building stakeholder networks. developing capacity and expertise for knowledge exchange with stakeholders. bringing the expertise, the portfolio knowledge, the Strategic Research Programme into those stakeholders"SEFARI Gateway.

MRP respondents saw the advantage of gaining access to stakeholder networks beyond those in which they routinely operate.  They stressed the importance of SEFARI Gateway's contributions – directly and through its formal Think Tank, Fellowship and Responsive Opportunities programmes - to relationship-building.  These efforts extend the stakeholder networks that MRPs and CoEs can access, while not 'getting in the way' of their bespoke knowledge exchange interactions:

"(SEFARI Gateway) got us embedded in a way, and conversations were being had, which perhaps we weren't having before. Making sure we got dialogues going on with a whole variety of people interested, stakeholders interested. It is actually starting now to feel to me like we are having substantive interactions with the stakeholders, that one is allowing the research from the program to go out, which is good. But also allow the stakeholders flow back into the program in terms of identification of need and refocusing"MRP

It was noteworthy that CoEs were happy to view SEFARI Gateway as an independent centre, analogous to their own, within the Strategic Research Portfolio. CoE interviewees made a clear distinction between SEFARI and SEFARI Gateway.  They engaged with MRPs as individual institutes, not as SEFARI, underlining their understanding that the latter title applied only to MRPs in the context of the Strategic Research Programme. 

3.3 Governance of Strategic Research Portfolio

The importance of cross-directorate Government portfolios (e.g., RAE, RAFE) as the top-level "owners" and promoters of Scottish Government research strategies published under their auspices was evidenced in our desk-based analysis in Section 2. We formed the tentative view that the cross-directorate portfolio(s) provide a reporting level above that of the Strategic Research Portfolio's assigned governance units (SRPB or SAB). That view was tested in the interviews.

Only one MRP interviewee noted the accountability structure of cross-directorate Government portfolios as being relevant to their activities across the Strategic Research Portfolio:

"Then there's the two select committees (that) encompass what we do. So there's Rural Economy, and a select committee on Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform"MRP.

When asked about the role of RAFE in Strategic Research Portfolio design and governance, one Scottish Government interviewee explained that the RAFE acronym (which is no longer used) was simply a descriptor, useful in delimiting the particular block of Scottish Government research funding administered by RESAS:

"At the time RAFE was, if you like, the business conglomeration that best reflected what we (RESAS) were attempting to service" - SG

In a follow-on question we asked if RESAS, as de facto owners of the Strategic Research Portfolio, might adopt a higher profile in its promotion to external stakeholders.  The answer made it clear that RESAS did not see itself in such a role:

"There's two distinct things happening. One is the RESAS, which is kind of a funder of research, and so we're getting acknowledged as that. But we are not ourselves the promoter of that research"SG

We also asked if RESAS' role might be analogous to that of a UK Research Council, a suggestion that was also rejected:

"Our function is to administer grants and make sure that stuff gets out there. But we're not the holders of the conversation" - SG

Answers to our questions about the SAB indicated a level of uncertainty as to whether this body was the ultimate Strategic Research Portfolio governance authority or simply advisory to RESAS.  Both the former and latter assumptions are illustrated in the following quotes:

"What they (SAB) want is they want a report from a mandated group that tells them what progress looks like, and that's why the operational group is there" – SG

"SAB are advisors to RESAS. We (DEC) sit on that"MRP.

"It (SAB) didn't feel like (advisory to SEFARI) to me. I felt very much like (we were) reporting in to (the SAB)"SEFARI Gateway.

The question "who runs the Strategic Research Programme?" had two different answers.  Scottish Government interviewees claimed that RESAS (through the SAB Operations Group) run the Strategic Research Program, while MRP respondents claimed this authority for MRPs (acting through the DEC).  These answers resonate with the document analysis (Section 2) which noted the apparently shared RESAS-MRP management of the CKEI / SEFARI Gateway function. 

Although interpretations of governance arrangements differed, many responses acknowledged the evolution towards more prescriptive commissioning of research in successive Scottish Government research portfolios. One of our Scottish Government interviewees noted the increased emphasis on commissioning coherent programmes rather than on funding individuals and their institutions, but felt that this emphasis may have gone unnoticed by MRPs:

"but the point I think that the institutes missed, and it was the key point, is that we don't fund individual institutes. We fund a programme which is meant to be coherent" SG

One MRP interviewee saw the change in emphasis from the funding of institutes to the funding of programmes as creating an unhelpful distance between SG and their research providers:

 "And there's been that sort of continual shift to push us away, which I think is an unhelpful development. I think we need to be part of the conversation rather than (a model of) 'we'll tell you when we've decided what we're going to do, what you can bid for'. Because that's too late in the day. So we should be part of a co-evolution"- MRP



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