Opportunities for collaboration between civil society organisations and researchers

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Image created by Berdea [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] (Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

To students, collaboration is far from a foreign concept. On a personal scale, whether it is group work at school or taking part in team sports, we instinctively recognise how strengths of different individuals can complement one another. Similarly, large scale multi-sectorial collaborations and public-private partnerships are also increasingly common in policy making. Recently, having worked for multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) and assisted with public health research in university, I was interested to explore the possibility of encouraging and enhancing collaborations between CSOs and health researchers.

“[CSOs are] non-governmental, non-profit organisations that do not represent commercial interests, and pursue a common purpose in the public interest”

European Commission

According to the European Commission, CSOs are ‘non-governmental, non-profit organisations that do not represent commercial interests, and pursue a common purpose in the public interest’. In essence, they are a group of individuals coming together for a common purpose, taking action and fulfilling specific objectives driven by the needs of the community.

One of the major benefits of collaborations between CSOs and researchers is that CSOs help develop a user-led agenda for research. In other words, due to CSOs’ superior foundation and knowledge of the specific challenges in the field, they can steer researchers to formulate better research questions. At the same time, such collaborations benefit the CSOs because they promote evidence-based practices, meaning that the latest research is taken into account when designing and implementing projects that are carried out in the community. Evidence-based practice was initially applied in clinical medicine, where it served as a guide for doctors when trying to make treatment decisions but the concept has now spread to other allied healthcare professions such as nursing and pharmacy, as well as educational fields and there remains a huge potential for evidence-based practice to be utilised and applied in the daily operations of CSOs.

Indeed, such collaborations have great potential to combine the best of both worlds from health research and the CSO community. However, such partnerships can also present challenges that should be recognized and tackled. For example, different objectives and priorities may lead to conflicts between the two parties within a collaboration. On the one hand, CSOs may be concerned when research does not respect the real needs of intended users but is instead driven by ambitions of researchers, which can in turn lead to trust issues. Conversely, since many CSOs are volunteer organisations, researchers have to reserve funding for them. This can also present a barrier to collaboration, as labs themselves have limited time and resources to spare.

A qualitative study on the involvement of CSOs in health research has revealed that almost all organisations rated their partnerships with researchers as “good” and “complementary”

Despite these challenges, reactions to collaborations between CSOs and researchers have been largely positive. A qualitative study on the involvement of CSOs in health research has revealed that almost all organisations rated their partnerships with researchers as “good” and “complementary”, a very promising result. That said, such collaborations are a relatively new and innovative concept, meaning there is yet to be extensive literature on this topic. Consequently, it is important that further research is carried out to assess and evaluate how to make collaborations more effective in the future.

Overall, by bringing together health researchers who aim to strive for a better understanding of health issues embedded in our society, and CSOs who aim to provide solutions to alleviate the same problems, we can undoubtedly explore and encourage the opportunity for collaborations between the two.