Re-generation thinkers

How might we create a cohort of early career researchers to connect with activists and explore new thinking and test ideas?

Mary Stevens02 Mar 2022

The problem

As we face the twin crises of climate breakdown and nature decline, many researchers opt to direct their careers towards finding solutions for these existential challenges. Research projects are started on every imaginable topic from asthma and air pollution to nature deprivation or circadian disruption. Early-career researchers in new topics or approaches may need to find communities to help them test their ideas or to build skills in communications or public engagement.

What are the options for raising profile, getting ideas out to a new audience, finding out if they are solving a real need and meeting the people who might be able to help further research?

The environmental movement attracts dedicated activists and local communities who are involved in a wide range of environmental issues day to day and are motivated to act for change. Sometimes they need specialist help.

The challenge

How might we connect specialists and activists to explore new thinking and test ideas?

The idea

What if we created the go-to community for early-career researchers working on earth-saving solutions? A cohort of the most inspiring emerging minds – think ‘New Generation thinkers’ but with a focus on applied environmental research to inspire and enlighten us.

There are many ways this could work and channels that could be used – from in-person TEDx style events, to podcasts or social media takeovers and showcases. Co-design with a first cohort would need to be at the heart of the project. A collaboration with the Research Councils would also be valuable.  

The benefits

The benefits should flow both ways. The researchers get feedback on their ideas based on practical experience and an opportunity to test out an approach in the real world. And importantly, they get to be part of a dynamic community of their peers, building their skills and profile together. The activists get access to new thinking or data that they can use to bolster their arguments or solve a problem. They get inspiration, and learn something new.  In addition they get to build relationships early on in an academic career, when researchers may be still be looking to shape their future research direction, and may be more open to new collaborations than more established (and very time-pressed) senior researchers.  Would collaboration early in a researcher’s career open up new avenues and suggest a hitherto unidentified need?

How could it work?

How this could work depends heavily on the needs and interests of the participants. If we had been able to run this, we imagine the following steps:

We invite expressions of interest from researchers and activists in building a collaborative community.

Everyone takes part in an intensive design process – perhaps a residential weekend to explore ideas, followed by a six-month co-development phase.  During this time the cohort could develop and test ideas : for example a TEDx event, or online showcase, or something completely different. At the end of the design period the cohort could produce recommendations for an ongoing early-career talent programme.

As part of the design programme the researchers would also need to consider how best to make themselves accessible to activists: an online platform hosted by the sponsoring organisation might be one way to achieve this.

How do we know it works?

We don’t. But others have run similar programmes. If you’re developing ideas in the Arts and Humanities you might join the prestigious New Generation thinkers programme.

Friends of the Earth has run a pilot to facilitate contact between in-house experts and close academic friends, involving a booking system and simple triage. We also run design sprints and workshops bringing specialists and practitioners together and feel that this idea could yield exciting results given time, interest and capacity. We also know that cohort-based approaches are some of the most effective ways to drive change and build community. We’ve seen this in our women and finance programme, as well as in programmes like On Purpose and Year Here.

Go on. Steal it. And let us know.