Sandpits: Creating new research ideas and collaborations

Last week I had the opportunity to support the first ever CREST research sandpit as an expert mentor. The event, held at Loughborough University and brilliantly facilitated by Sophie and Heather from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), brought together researchers from ten member institutions over two days to explore issues and challenges around collaborative research, to generate ideas to take to community and business partners and then pitch for small seed corn monies to kickstart further conversations.

The agenda for the two days under discussion

The agenda for the two days under discussion

This was my first sandpit and I wasn’t entirely sure how they worked. I had heard they were intense, usually held over a few days and when involving academics they had an interdisciplinary focus that looked at framing problems and solutions within a certain context (for us it was the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund). The idea for this sandpit was to develop cross university and interdisciplinary project ideas that researchers could then take to community or business partners. These ideas were to start a conversation with the intention of developing them further and building equitable research partners. Ultimately of course the aim is to secure larger funding grants to make the ideas a reality.

The ideas developed in this sandpit will be brought back to a further event in February where partnerships will pitch for small pilot projects to be undertaken to test out ideas, develop them further and apply for more funding. My role was to provide feedback, answer questions and offer expertise and comment around research funding and how the partners may go about accessing future funding. In summary it was a really stimulating couple of days that saw a number of great ideas being developed. I enjoyed watching the ideas come together and the way in which the different researchers, all with different backgrounds, came together was really positive and inspiring. The following are some specific observations on the event and I think many can be applied to developing research collaborations more broadly:

  1. Sandpits are intensive! I had heard that they are but until you experience one it is hard to describe. There is little time to think about anything else as you move through intellectual challenges and discussions at a swift pace quickly developing, binning, refining and creating ideas.
  2. To make the most of a sandpit you need to go in with a completely open mind. You may have been asked to come with some research ideas up your sleeve and if that is the case you will get a chance to express and discuss them but you should remain open to new ideas including topics you may never have considered and disciplines you may never have thought you might (or could) work with. It is surprising how ideas are developed.

    Pitching for 'conversation' funding - the panel decides

    Pitching for ‘conversation’ funding – the panel decides

  3. The pace at which ideas were generated was exciting and saw a huge number of ideas being discussed. This is a really important part of the process as it whittles down vast ideas into manageable yet ambitious potential projects.
  4. The sandpit gave everyone an opportunity to pitch for funding. Time to both develop and deliver the pitch was tight and this made for a great learning experience for all involved. It is a skill that can be easily transferred to other funding opportunities.
  5. The energy in the room enabled people to mix easily – good facilitation is critical to make this work. The tasks undertaken were all engaging and well paced helping to ensure both the agenda moved forward quickly and people got to know each other.
  6. The networking opportunities were worth the admission price alone! The way in which the event was facilitated meant there was plenty of space to learn about others and their interests and expertise. These new connections will likely lead to new opportunities in the future.
  7. I learnt a lot as an observer about different ways to approach facilitation, build ideas and rank priorities. The Diamond Nine technique was incredibly useful as a way of seeing how your own priorities may match up with potential collaborators, providing a good starting point for discussions.

The two days produced four really interesting ideas that will now be taken out into the world and developed further with potential partners. I’m pleased that Cloud Chamber will be able to support these ideas further over the coming months in conjunction with CREST. I for one really enjoyed my first sandpit and I hope to attend more in the future. If you ever get the opportunity to attend a research sandpit I highly recommend you get along, it can really open up opportunities and new networks.