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.

4 Discussion

4.1 Strategic Research Programme and Strategic Research Portfolio

The Scottish Government has shifted emphasis over the last 15 years from funding of grantee-initiated research programmes to assembling Strategic Research Portfolios focused on commissioned research and knowledge exchange outputs such RDs. The introduction of Strategic Research Portfolios coincided with that of relevant government portfolios – most recently RAFE, ECCLR and REC – as research commissioners.  

RAFE's documented status as owner and ultimate governance authority in the Strategic Research Portfolio does not resonate strongly with either RESAS or the MRPs. RESAS understands the RAE, RAFE and ENRA acronyms as descriptors that delimit the tranche of Scottish Government funding under their administrative control. MRPs continue to respond to the Strategic Research Programme funding stimulus and associated "rules of the game" provided by RESASRESAS continues to be seen as the ultimate funder of the MRPs rather than as a key intermediary acting on behalf of the Scottish Government commissioners of the Strategic Research Portfolio.  

It was easier to recognise the role of RAFE (or RESAS, if they are the Strategic Research Portfolio governance authority) in the commissioning of CoEs as consortia, each with an independent organisational structure and knowledge exchange presence, focused on specific stakeholders and desired outputs.  CoEs are effectively centres for knowledge exchange and impact (CKEIs), not just centres of expertise. The CKEI governance structure, later adopted by SEFARI Gateway, was also that of a commissioned consortium, with its constitution agreed and documented in the Collaboration Agreement among its partners.  

Scottish Government's intent for the Strategic Research Programme to adopt a higher public profile and knowledge exchange presence as part of the Strategic Research Portfolio hinges on its ability to perform as a purposeful research and delivery organisation, over and above its perceived status as the MRPs' "pot of money", "lever of additional resources" or "network of scientists". If the Strategic Research Programme had been constituted as a standalone consortium it might have attended to its own public profile and knowledge exchange commitments, as CoEs do.  We recognise that a standalone consortium of the scale of the current Strategic Research Programme would be unwieldy, but smaller consortia might in future assemble around existing and emerging scientific and policy priorities. 

4.2 SEFARI and SEFARI Gateway

The Strategic Research Programme-specific CKEI proposal did not fully address the strategic intent of creating an organisational profile and knowledge exchange presence to represent the Scottish Government investment in the entire Strategic Research Portfolio.  Although we were unable to verify the decision process that led to the naming of SEFARI and re-branding of the CKEI as the SEFARI Gateway, the SEFARI title clearly aligns research institutes (however defined) with a SEFA identity that represents the Scottish Government's Environment Food and Agriculture research investment.  Questions around the use of the SEFARI title centre on whether it should be narrowly understood as referring to the six incumbent MRPs or taken to include consortia of different scope and scale (including the Strategic Research Programme, CoEs and SEFARI Gateway) commissioned as research and knowledge exchange delivery organisations within the Strategic Research Portfolio. 

All MRPs and CoEs have individually developed stakeholder networks as well as their own knowledge exchange mechanisms and public engagement channels. The Strategic Research Programme could be recast as one or more similarly purposeful organisations, as noted in Section 4.1.  The SEFARI Gateway seems to be making progress in inspiring closer working relationships across SEFARI, if SEFARI can be seen as a Strategic Research Portfolio-spanning collective.  In that sense it is meeting the "development of collective identity" expectation, noted in Section 3.2.2, despite its strong initial association with the incumbent MRPs.  That association was largely derived from the CKEI remit ("delivery of research products and information") on behalf of MRPs in the Strategic Research Programme context.  If all research delivery organisations within the Strategic Research Portfolio continue to work more closely together as a collective, they might all make use of the SEFARI collective identity "promotion of the delivery organisation(s)" and "development of external stakeholder networks" expectations assigned to SEFARI Gateway in the interview findings.   

There is no doubt that the Gateway function is important, and could be positioned as an independent unit within a more broadly drawn SEFARI (or other) collective entity that represents the entire Strategic Research Portfolio.  The SEFARI Gateway Collaboration Agreement allows that RESAS might change the definition of SEFARI to include other research delivery organisations, potentially allowing CoEs, the Strategic Research Programme (or its successor consortia) and other organisations to participate fully as "MRPs" under the SEFARI banner. 

The four "categories of expectation" drawn from our interview findings in Section 3.2.2, show that SEFARI Gateway is being pulled in multiple directions by its stakeholders, including the Gateway leadership, who naturally have their own vision for its future.  Given the diverse expectations, there is a tendency for "mission creep" (e.g. whether public engagement extends to science education, including schools programmes, as has been mooted). Not all desired roles can be fulfilled within available resources. It remains the case, as the 2018 review panel agreed, that a clearer forward plan is needed for SEFARI and SEFARI Gateway.



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