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Lessons in Collaboration: Lynn Vaccaro

Lessons in Collaboration: Lynn Vaccaro

Lynn Vaccaro

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University of Michigan Water Center

Learning from a Project Advisory Group

The University of Michigan, like many universities across the country, is elevating its commitment to public engagement by increasing support for faculty to share their work beyond the academic community. Some faculty are finding opportunities to build strategic relationships with other sectors and organizations closely related to their research. Studies show that consultations with practitioners during the research process can increase the use and impact of research products, but what can that consultation process look like?

One of my responsibilities at the Water Centers is to coordinate the advisory group for a watershed modeling project. What have we found that might be transferable about our process?

  • Mutual Benefits: We designed our project advisory group to engage efficiently with key stakeholders and help ensure relevance, credibility and usability of project results. Our advisors are participating because their involvement is closely related to their professional responsibilities; we cover travels costs but do not provide honoraria.
  • Balanced Composition: We opted to create a single, large advisory group - 30 people - to include representation from the regions, industries, government entities and university experts involved in this bi-national watershed. The group is much larger than we would recommend for most research projects but reflects our desire, and the goals of our funder, to use science to help build consensus around the best approaches for reducing nutrients to Lake Erie.
  • Regular Meetings: Our group meets in person once a year for a two-day meeting. This allows for deeper discussion of our research as well as important social time in the evening. We also host one or two full-group conference calls annually and organize small group and individual consultations on specific topics as needed.
  • Purposeful Feedback: We carefully design each meeting and clearly articulate how we plan to use the group's expertise and feedback. Our advisors have helped us understand unique aspects of waste water treatment plant operations and farming practices in various sub-watersheds. They have helped us access new datasets and develop modeling scenarios that align with current policy discussions. The group will help us craft the right messages and information products for target audiences as we begin reporting research results in the next year.

While this advisory group structure has been useful for this project, "engagement" needs to be customized for every project and program. Fortunately, my colleagues and I at the Graham Institute enjoy this type of challenge. We are available to consult with other researchers looking for ways to deepen their relationships with practitioners and expand the impact of their research program.