Farmer using a mechanical plough in Suphanburi, Central Thailand. Photo: Rajesh Daniel / SEI.

Collaborative research is all the rage. Everyone is doing it and it is the expected form of delivering knowledge for practice and policy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For instance, Goal 17 requires “a revitalized and enhanced global partnership that brings together governments, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations system and other actors, mobilizing all available resources”.

Has “collaborative research” been stretched?

Collaborative research, or co-research is not fully defined, but it is considered to be “a process in which diverse stakeholders [actors] … work together to design and deliver a shared research vision”. It is more than just involving multiple disciplines or engaging with local communities. It is the modus operandi of research that seeks to address the Agenda 2030 priorities.

Importantly, the issue of collaborative research has been attributed to delivering long term ownership of outcomes, understanding of local processes and viability of research recommendations.

A recent article by SEI staff discussed the stretching of co-management in protected areas identifying that sometimes “co-management” has become a facade under which traditional hierarchical and market-based management regimes can occur. This is very clear when you look at actor positions, power, representations, interactions and roles in delivery. But do we find the same stretching in collaborative research?

Co-research in the Mekong Region

Over the last decades SEI has run water management programs across Asia, US, Europe, South America, Africa. These learnings are being applied to the latest iteration of the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) with its programmatic focus on water insecurity.

In designing and delivering this new program and its research calls, we critically reflected on how and what collaborative research looks like in the Mekong Region. This is a highly context driven reflection that tried to understand the type of research approach to enhance current research design.

Critically in this age with multiple actors in place; funders (F), policy makers (P) and researchers (R), there are multiple research approaches, and each is using the framing of co-research to describe its activities. Figure 1 (below) outlines the current stretch of ‘co- research approaches’ in the Mekong. Where actors use directional power (solid arrow) or softer engagement processes (dotted arrow) to collaborate and deliver research on water issues.

We find co-research is also being stretched, just like co-management of protected areas. It seems fair to say that not all research occurring in the Mekong is about ‘actors working together collaboratively’. We note this is especially true when actors have multiple identities, e.g. as funder and policy makers or as funders and researchers resulting in more control and coordination .

So if we ask “Has the term ‘co-research’ been stretched beyond usefulness?”, the answer would seem to be yes.

However, there is a caveat. Some of the stretching is necessary to get research done. Different political regimes require nuanced and reflective research management strategies. They may not be truly collaborative. But are they more collaborative than previous research management.

The continual stretching of co-research approaches means that funders, researchers and policy-makers need to be aware of where their current project sits. Is it more about control? Coordination? or collaboration? The most effective research management for Mekong water issues is a truly collaborative approach, but all actors should be included; government, community, marginalized groups, researchers and funders.

Let us see if the recent calls by SUMERNET for research in the Mekong Region lead to genuine collaboration in research.