Our recent Research Encounter offered a rare opportunity to hear from three leading figures reflecting on their experience of collaboration and boundary pushing. They were:

  • The Right Honourable Helen Clark, formerly Prime Minister of New Zealand for three successive terms, and an administrator of the United Nations Development Program. In 2021, she was elected as president of Chatham House
  • Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria and Chair of the Australia Africa University’s network. His own research as an academic is in Media Studies and Journalism, where he’s widely published.
  • Mohit Bakaya, Controller of BBC Radio Four and Radio Four Extra. Mohit has had a long career in the BBC and before becoming controller for Radio Four he was the Editing Commissioner for Radio Four Factual.

The panel was chaired by the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network’s lead on Public Engagement, Professor Barry Smith.


We kicked off the conversation by asking our panel how they started collaborations and sought out the people they wanted to work with.

Helen Clark said that her time in academia in the 1970s was definitely not about teamwork, much more of a lonely, scholarly pursuit. Working with diverse teams only became the usual way to operate when she entered her political career and then worked at the UN. “The structure of the organisation can define the collaborations but, of course, you need to reach outside it to test ideas, get independent advice. I always like to hear independent advice, not just through official advice streams.”

Prof Kupe had a different experience. He went to university in Zimbabwe in 1980s, post-independence, where his University wanted to reach out, become less isolated, creating opportunities to allow people to study abroad. Prof Kupe did his PhD in Norway and has had what he describes as, “a career forged within collaborations and partnerships.” He added “as Vice-Chancellor, I now drive the University of Pretoria through collaborations and partnerships.”

As Mohit Bakaya pointed out, the BBC does not need to approach others when externally engaging because, simply put, people come to them. “One of the things we must do when choosing to collaborate is to not go for the usual suspects. It’s the same as when you’re recruiting people for jobs, you’ve got to avoid cultural cloning. It’s very easy to work with people who look like you talk like you, are of a facsimile of yourself. Actually, those are often the least useful collaborations. The really important collaborations are the ones where someone really brings a very different set of skills, experiences and expertise to the table.”

Our speakers advised people engaged in research to be outward facing and easy to connect with. The University of Pretoria (UP) approaches this by partnering with The Conversation Africa, an organisation that seeks to translate academic knowledge to the public, on a free platform where the media can pick it up. Academics at UP are required to train with The Conversation to be able to translate their complex ideas into information and knowledge, that is publicly available. They are trying to change the paradigm by asking the big questions: What are the mutual interests? Where do we have strengths? Where do we have opportunities to build capacity? Prof Kupe suggested a research collaboration needs four drivers: developing new academic programs; developing capacity; creating interesting research projects in partnership; producing policy relevant, interesting, critical analytical research.

The BBC, like everyone else, shares the same of issue operating in a very fast changing societal landscape, where the technology can seem overwhelming. Mohit Bakaya sees Radio 4 as filled by ‘other people’s knowledge and expertise. It’s our currency.’ For this to work and represent modern Britain, they need to work with as wide a range of people as possible. They have contributors and are constantly looking for academics to be their experts. The challenge can be to make it mutually useful. Mohit talked about this project with the Wellcome Trust arising from conversation at a party where Mohit asked how the researchers planned to reach a wider audience. This turned into a really fruitful collaboration which gave the BBC a series of programmes on unusual topics including rest, touch and loneliness. The win for the Wellcome Trust was a sample group of Radio 4 listeners, with 55,000 people filling in their research questionnaires.

As with all research collaborations, there needs to be an understanding that academics are not a ‘cheap R&D option.’ Helen wanted to expand this thinking beyond the usual university/industry approaches. ‘The emphasis on what is it that universities do and contribute to, in particular economic growth, tends in my opinion, to lead to a devaluing of the Humanities. For example, and I think we’re a much poorer society if we devalue the study of Humanities and Arts. I think universities have to be about more than how we design public policy. They also have to be about, the fulfilment of individual potential, they have to be about enlightenment, they have to be about the exchange of ideas.’

So do we always have to think of ourselves as commercially oriented or business attracting in our research? Tawana thinks not. “No, because I think that if it’s just narrowly conceptualised in that instrument, I doubt that that knowledge would even be worth with it. The best of knowledge thrives in an intellectual environment. The enlightenment dimension is also connected to having democratic societies that cannot be just subjected to the printing of the cash register for the paycheck today, democracy requires more robust discussion and debate. You discuss with more people so it is not just a of a cacophony of opposing voices that polarise, but ones that seek to produce some degree of understanding about what it means to be human, and what it means to actually relate to other human beings. That is the basis of the kinds of human rights that we actually enjoy and those cannot simply be commercially determined.”

Our speakers were sharing their insights from positions of influence, and one questioner asked how Fellows can engage with these types of organisation when they are starting out?

Helen Clark had some sound advice. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again because you can run into brick walls, right? People would write to me all the time, ideas, suggestions, and from time to time, if it looked to me like it had merit, I would meet people myself and then bring in the officials then I’d suggest they went away and worked on that, and see what we they could develop. So don’t dismiss the idea of trying to go as high as you can because that will force a kind of discussion and debate in an organisation. If you’re really convinced that what you’ve got is important, then policy makers and the media need to know about it. Just keep at it, you’ll find a way in one way or the other.”

Prof Kupe added, “I think many people tend to have self-doubt. Actually, you are the experts now and your confidence is based on that. Not many people are comfortable talking to new partners and are naturally self-effacing. Even today as VC, I often say to academics, you are the expert. Do not try and justify why you are the expert. Instead, be honest and truthful about what you are expecting from collaborations it will help you gain confidence and give partners confidence.”

And finally, Mohit, gave some clear advice to participants. “Really think about what kind of questions and what kind of research you can bring. What feels like it’s breaking new ground, then find a production company. It’s not too difficult to work up an idea with them. We commission thousands of programs a year, so there’s real scope, and those programs often come from people who know about something that they think needs wider examination/exploration.”

Ideas on how to collaborate:

  • Look at the strengths and weaknesses in what you are trying to do and try and look for places where the opposite thinking prevails – it can you get into corners of the landscape.
  • Establish shared goals and a shared vision with collaborators from the outset.
  • Make sure you explore how this can be mutually beneficial.
  • Look for people who compliment you rather than replicate.
  • Don’t second guess what an organisation might want. The BBC sees researchers as their eyes on the world: people who can tell us all the things we don’t know. That’s really valuable.

This blog reports only a small part of what our brilliant speakers conveyed. For a greater understanding, please look out for the recording. Mohit Bakaya emphasised the need to engage with media for mutual benefit and we will be running a session on this on 21 March with Prof Barry Smith. And finally, Prof Kupe spoke a lot about equitable partnerships which deserves its own blog, so that we are working on that with him and it will follow soon.

Banner image saying 'Research Encounters 2022 - Building Collaborations'Our second Research Encounters event, on the theme of Building Collaborations, is now just under a week away. We have lined up an exceptional panel with the Rt Hon Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current President of Chatham House; Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria; and Mohit Bakaya, Controller of BBC Radio 4. Chaired by our own Professor Barry Smith, the panel will share insights and advice on forming collaborations which reach impactfully across boundaries of all kinds.

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A lot has happened since we held our first Research Encounters event last March, bringing our Network’s researchers and innovators together for the first time around the theme of Navigating Uncertainty. In addition to marking the launch of our 360 Feedback and Coaching, our Mentoring, and Plus Fund programmes, the event marked the first time at which we were able to introduce national leaders to Fellows in the Network.

Our panellists at that event were: Professor Kim Graham, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise at Cardiff University, who has just been appointed as the Provost of Edinburgh University; Professor Julian Chaudhuri, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education and Student Experience at the University of Plymouth; and Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust. Together, they spoke in depth about how to act as leaders in times of uncertainty, specifically including the unique challenges, but also opportunities, created by the pandemic. They shared rich insights into how they had managed their responsibilities in this new context. Fellows also engaged with fantastic networking sessions and improvisation exercises, designed to help us respond to new challenges adroitly and with confidence.

Fellows regularly tell us that, as we look to the year ahead and – with luck – to a gradual lessening of pandemic-induced uncertainty,  there’s a lot of catching up to be done. For many, one such area in need of recuperative effort is collaboration and networking. Over the last two years, opportunities for forging strong networks and engaging in new collaborations have been sadly diminished. That’s why we are putting the theme of collaboration at the core of this flagship Network event. We’re delighted to welcome a diverse group of international leaders, who will discuss with you their experiences of collaborative partnerships. Read on for their biographies.

Following the panel discussion, Fellows will have the chance to ask questions and explore how, where, and with whom they can build strong collaborations – whether local, national, or global.

If you’ve not yet had the chance, register to attend the event here. We can’t wait to see you there!

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Profile picture of Helen Clark in a purple jacket, standing in a modern office

Rt Hon. Helen Clark served three successive terms as Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1999 and 2008. While in government, she led policy debate on a wide range of economic, social, environmental and cultural issues, including sustainability and climate change.

From 2009 to 2017, Ms Clark acted as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, and was the first woman to lead the organisation. She was also the Chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the Heads of all UN funds, programmes and departments working on development issues. In 2019 Helen Clark became patron of The Helen Clark Foundation. In 2021, she was elected president of Chatham House, an independent policy institute, which helps people, societies and governments understand and adapt to seismic change. Rt Hon. Clark is currently chairing the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response with former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, which was convened by the World Health Organization last year and has just completed its main report. Her expertise extends to sustainable development, tackling climate change and developments in the Asia-Pacific.

Profile Picture of Professor Tawana Kupe, in a business suit with red tie, sat in a leather chair in an office

Professor Tawana Kupe is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria since January 2019. Prof Kupe is the Africa Co-Chair of the Australia-Africa Universities Network (AAUN) since 2019.Prof Kupe has a notable publication record, having authored journal articles, books and book chapters in his main discipline, Media Studies and Journalism. Over the years, Prof Kupe has played a key role in the establishment of select new innovative initiatives at Wits, of which the latest is the Africa Centre for the Study of the United States.  He is a member of Council of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) and The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Council.

Profile picture of Mohit Bakaya, dressed in suit with no tie, in front of a red striped background

Mr Mohit Bakaya is the Controller for BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4Extra and was the Commissioning Editor for Factual at BBC Radio 4 since 2008. Mr Bakaya joined the BBC in 1993 as a production trainee and worked on the BBC Radio 4’s arts programme, Front Row, before becoming editor of Night Waves on BBC Radio 3. Since then, he has commissioned and led on current affairs, politics, history, science, natural history and religion programming across the BBC Radio 4 schedule.




At the first Research Encounter event, Navigating Uncertainty, we asked a panel of Professor Kim Graham (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise, Cardiff University), Professor Julian Chaudhuri (Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education and Student Experience, University of Plymouth) and Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar (Director, Wellcome Trust) for their views on leading in times of uncertainty. They talked about their roles, and the challenges that uncertainty brings in leadership, as well as how they work with the people around them to take decisions in uncertain times.

In this blog Samantha Aspinall summarises their thoughts and advice drawn from their own experiences as senior leaders in the sector.

‘I think that uncertainty is something that affects all of us whoever we are and it certainly affects all leaders, if they’re honest about the roles they play. For example, when to step in, when to lean in, when to lean out, when to step back from something, when to be forceful, when to be less so. And I think it is a something that we all struggle with, if we’re honest. It is magnified at the moment by events happening around us and of course COVID is one of those, but it’s much deeper than COVID. I think we are at one of those inflection points in history when we will look back in many years to come and say that was a really pivotal moment.’

Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar.

How can we as individuals deal with uncertainty?

Uncertainty strikes people in different ways and this, all our panel members agreed, is an area that as leaders it is crucial to understand. Some of us embrace the idea of the unknown, others find it hugely stressful. When I talk to people about how they deal with uncertainty, I often use the analogy of going on a trip (remember that?) to somewhere for the first time. Some are happy to head off with no real itinerary, just arrive and see what they fancy doing. For others this approach is seen as risky because new experiences might be missed due to lack of planning. Of course, it is easy to think about your responses when it is your ‘own’ time, but does that differ when we are at work and shouldering a different type of responsibility? Prof Graham talked about understanding your own response to uncertainty. She focused on understanding as an individual, how you respond when you find yourself in difficult uncertain situations. When feeling uncertain, for example, you might find yourself feeling out of control. That can then create anxiety and induce rumination around decision making. This type of rumination can use up huge amounts of time and energy which in turn stops you focussing on what decisions you can make now and what you can control.

As researchers and innovators, uncertainty is already a part of the job. You have developed ideas, approaches and experiments that need testing and where the outcome is uncertain. You are at the cutting edge of knowledge, where the answers are unknown. Given your experience as researcher, you already know about uncertainty and will have developed approaches to deal positively with it. Prof Graham noted, ‘The adaptations I’ve developed as a researcher – working on uncertain questions – have been vital for me being able to step up a level and work across a much bigger leadership landscape where there is almost constant ongoing uncertainty.’ As an already successful researcher, this is a skill already at your disposal. Our panellists shared their approaches:

  • Take a break. It sounds obvious but this is the time to recognise your triggers and pause before the situation becomes uncomfortable for you to deal with. Stop fighting the fires and put a little space between you and them;
  • Remain calm. ‘How do you remain calm when the world is banging on your door?’ asks Prof Chaudhuri. His response, having seen others do it, is to know enough about the subject to know what’s important, what’s relevant and what’s critical but also being aware of what you don’t know;
  • Talk to your ‘safe’ people. All of us need sounding boards. Whether we prefer to reflect on an issue then share our thoughts or talk through the issues as they arise, a trusted colleague can be invaluable;
  • Think about reflecting on your own responses to uncertainty through your 360 feedback.

How can we be leaders in times of uncertainty?

No-one does their job in isolation, we all work with people. We have already looked at how situations might affect us, so we also need to apply this thinking to our teams. ‘We have to learn to cope with it in our leadership approaches because you can be absolutely sure that if you’re feeling the fear and uncertainty, you can be absolutely sure that those around you are also feeling that in a magnified way,’ Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar. As Prof Chaudhuri says ‘the role of universities has meant that resisting change has not been an option. We couldn’t say, we’re going to close the doors, like John Lewis has done, and when it’s all over, we’ll come back. We’ve had to keep going.’ Not everybody has reacted the same way to the pandemic and the need to pivot.’ When others are looking to you for guidance, it can make you feel uncomfortable at precisely the time when you’re as uncertain as everybody else.

Our panel had some great advice.

  • Develop a crystal clear focus on what you should be doing and what you want to do. (Don’t forget your peripheral vision, you can’t do this in exclusion to other things, but clarity should come with the focus.)
  • Share the focus so that it becomes a collaborative effort
  • Don’t be afraid to share and discuss the what ifs…? People often feel more stressed when they think things are being hidden from them
  • Work together and support each other – this will create resilience that then allows the flexibility to support people when they are struggling and to admit when they’re struggling
  • Listen – develop and use your radar, don’t assume what people need
  • Try, where possible, to manage other’s stress so that they don’t stress you
  • Remember – there is a population distribution of behaviours

And finally all our panel members shared advice about on how to make decisions in challenging times.

‘Don’t rush to make decisions,’ says Prof Chaudhuri, ‘We were being pushed very hard by all of our stakeholders to make very fast decisions, but you do need to stop, take a breath, have a cup of tea, and think, what am I doing here? So take time to reflect, even though you’re working at pace.’

Prof Graham suggests ‘Just the act of writing things on paper, putting things into columns or into two-by-two matrices, whatever works for you, sometimes helps things to be a bit clearer. I suppose in terms of making the decision itself, my underpinning view would be if, when you have to make the decision, ensure you’ve explored every avenue that you can and you kicked everything around, turned over every stone, then sometimes you’ve got to say, what will be will be. It’s about being confident that you’ve done absolutely everything you can do to reach that point where you make the decision.’

The title Future Leaders Fellow may seem daunting, people are looking to you make decisions, but all our panellists reflected that we all need many and diverse voices to help us triangulate what we need to do.

‘I think that ability to see around corners is important, not in a predictive way, but actually trying to see the trends that we’re going through at the moment and see beyond the immediate issues and into a broader context. To see where the interfaces can be generated in order for you, as part of something else, to see around those corners, over those bumps. I think our linear approach, what I call reductionist, is perhaps destroying our ability to thrive at the interfaces, be inclusive and see around corners, which may just be by being open to a different perspective or personality. The combination of knowledge, breadth as well as depth, the humility to work at interfaces, to be streetwise and to appreciate the roles one plays as leaders and then be able to stand on shoulders and see further is what I call, ‘seeing around corners.’ That is where the leadership of tomorrow needs to be generated from.’

Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar

And a final note, some of the ideas suggested link directly with what we are offering as part of the network, mentoring (those ‘safe’ voices), 360 feedback to support understanding how we each react to uncertainty/change and of course if this has raised thoughts on something you would like us to add into the calendar, please let us know.