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MPCER launch: why now? Why does it work and why does it fail?

The official launch of Maastricht Platform for Community-Engaged Research (MPCER) took place on Thursday 3 October.

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UM President Martin Paul explained how Community-Engaged Research (CER) fits with UM’s mission and main policies and expressed his gratitude to the University Fund Limburg (SWOL) for making this initiative possible. Marieke Hopman, the platform’s initiator, introduced a working definition of CER, by highlighting three distinctive characteristics: (1) CER explicitly aims to have societal impact, (2) CER involves the relevant community, and (3) CER shares the results with this community. She pointed out that this working definition had been the subject of many debates.

Why CER, and why now? These were the guiding questions for the first panel. Bouwien Janssen, Director of the University Fund Limburg answered the first question by referring to SWOL’s mission statement: increasing interactions between UM and society. CER can bridge multiple challenges UM is currently facing: the need to attract additional funding, and have societal impact in its direct environment. Judith Kamalski, Director of Academic Affairs (UM) highlighted that the societal challenges we are currently facing require engaging civil society and turning the so-called Triple Helix (Science, Government, Private companies) into a Quadruple Helix. This requires, she argued, more effective communication because “stakeholders speak different languages”. CER and MPCER can play an important role here. The researchers in this panel shared their experiences with CER. “Today, we are on the edge of development,” indicated Banu Aysolmaz (SBE), who studies how algorithms based on data affect our lives. Researchers, she argued, “should connect with society, since it is had for individuals to connect with science”. Christel van Beijsterveld (FHML) explained her aspiration to get more deeply involved in patients’ lives and needs. “Let yourself get involved in their life, rather than engage patients in your research.” This implies, she argued, developing new research designs. Someone from the public asked about the “empowerment of the people”. Bouwien Janssen answered that balancing the interests of different stakeholders is more effective than confrontations. Among the many relevant points brought in by the public, the question to what extent CER is or should be locally or regionally oriented, is particularly interesting for an internationally oriented university as UM. Martin Paul argued that the local/global distinction is somewhat misleading when addressing current societal challenges. A CER project in India may have implications and benefits for our region as well.

Why does CER work, and why does it sometimes fail? These were the guiding questions for panel 2. Klasien Horstman (FHML) immediately observed that these questions disregarded the process character of CER. In her view, such a clear-cut distinction does not exist: “The success of a project is something that the researcher evaluates with the community”. In fact, she said, “there are no failures when you are in dialogue, because the researcher can anticipate and decide together with the community which way to go”. Besides, she pointed out, most of the time, the community is divided. Ties van de Werff (FASoS) endorsed this idea: “There is no homogeneous community.” With regards to success factors, Daniëlle Verstegen (FHML), who works on an interregional project aiming at improving patients’ safety in healthcare, explained that in her study the patients’ engagement and the researchers’ responsibilities need to be in balance. Kay Deckers (FHML), whose project aims at developing a new model for dementia prevention gave a clear-cut advice: “Go to the public,” “create a personal relationship”. On the governance level, he said that the challenge was to “create an advantage for both parties” and advised to “address the responsible person”. Klasien Horstman added that from her experience as an ethnographic researcher: “Listening, generosity and giving is important”. Hospitality is one way to express this attitude. In her engagement with deprived neighbourhoods in Maastricht, Horstman explained that she accepts most roles. “I do catering work, look after children or make soup”. This point raised the issue of the researcher’s neutrality. Most panel members said that they preferred the term “independence”. When a researcher gives a voice to a deprived community, Daniëlle Verstegen argued, “(s)he is not neutral”. Yet researchers can uphold their independence: “Present your findings even if the commissioner of the research may have hoped for a different outcome”.

The panel members concluded that a researcher’s independence needs to be the most highly valued aspect and that it is important for all stakeholders to be aware that the “success” of a project may lay in a different outcome than originally targeted. Here, a member of the public brought out the political dimension that may interfere with CER. While he applauded that researchers dare to speak, he cautioned: “You will not make friends only.”

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