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Norms and Ways of Operating

As philosophers accustomed to undertaking research in a particular way, we established a number of critical parameters for our project early on, some of which generated difficulties when seeking out potential partners. Our review of the literature helped us identify the epistemological, ethical, and legal/regula-tory challenges which formed the basis of our research questions. While there was some scope to shape the research to be responsive to the needs of research partners in ways we had not already anticipated, the amount of flexibility was constrained. Thus, when we approached partners it needed to be the case that their interests aligned with the framework we had already established, and this precluded us from developing a partnership with some organizations. For example, a government body we met with was interested in innovation in surgery, but as it pertained to the implementation of innovation across healthcare systems. This was not something captured by our project, nor could it be appended straightforwardly to our work. Other potential partners were concerned with questions that had a very specific and narrow focus relevant to their situation and organization. Taking up these questions would have limited the broader applicability and capacity to generalize from our research in ways which we did not find palatable at the time.

Our choice of potential partners was also restricted by a principled decision we made when developing the project; namely, there was a large cohort of possible partners we did not approach because of their capacity to adversely impact the way our research was carried out and received. For instance, although they could have furnished substantial research income, we avoided seeking support from device manufacturers and biotechnology companies, as these could present significant (perceived or real) conflicts of interest with a potential to skew research findings and undermine the credibility of the project’s results.

Academic culture differs from a more corporate non-academic culture in ways that make the latter difficult for academics to navigate. This can have an impact on the results of research, in addition to whether or not the research can in fact be undertaken at all. For our postdoctoral researcher embedded at Westmead Hospital, the difference in workplace culture represented a tangible challenge. In a presentation about her role she discussed her fears in these terms: “I didn’t really know whether or how I could make the transition from sitting in my office wearing any old thing, cultivating eccentricity and reading about free will, to the scary corporate world of hospital management” (Hutchison and Rogers 2014). In order to be effective in her role she needed to gain trust and credibility with her new colleagues, and this involved understanding and fitting into their workplace. Among other things (such as knowing what to wear!) this meant adapting to an environment in which there was a greater respect for hierarchies and deference to authority than in Australian academia. There were also linguistic barriers, so that she needed to quickly become fluent in the use of particular acronyms and the peculiar jargon of surgery and healthcare more generally.

In fact, communication in general presented a challenge for our team, given the differences in methods, audiences, and even content relevant to academic and corporate/stakeholder realms. The standard methods of academic discourse involve conference and journal papers targeted at one’s peers and focused on providing a convincing argument for a particular position. When dealing with our partners, however, our communication needed to be succinct, accessible, engaging, and to focus on the tangible outcomes of the project in terms of its headlines or main points, rather than the evidence and arguments to substantiate these points.' We found ourselves writing newsletters for our partners, contributing to industry bulletins, speaking at business breakfasts, presenting at medical grand rounds, and running stakeholder workshops. Again, these forms of communication demanded a skill set outside the norm for philosophers.

Communication within the team was also an issue, given the disciplinarily diverse and relatively large group (11 Chief and Partner Investigators, a postdoc and a research assistant). Keeping track of what all members of the team were doing needed conscientious management, and we employed a project management software tool, Basecamp, to help support this. We used the tool to share important documents; post meeting minutes; link to internet sources; store contact details and mailing lists; load copies of conference abstracts, publications, and our newsletter to partners; and generally keep each other updated about project developments.

In fact, these kinds of issues around communication within the team spoke to a broader hurdle we encountered concerning the logistics of running a project of this kind, which was new to most of us on the team. Unlike those in the sciences and even in other areas of the humanities, philosophers in the academy are not generally accustomed to operating as part of large multidisciplinary' teams, as was certainly the case for the philosophers on this project. Fortunately, our project leader was from a medical and bioethics background and familiar with working in groups and across disciplines, and our research assistant had worked in the corporate world previously (in addition to being extremely competent and organized!). To help ensure we covered the ground described in our funding proposal, we identified four streams or working groups which covered our project goals. There was a taxonomy group concerned with questions of definition, a qualitative research group to oversee the development and analysis of the interviews, as well as an ethics group and a legal/regulatory group. Each of us joined those groups that were of interest to us and appointed stream leaders. This proved to be a highly effective method of dividing up the work and ensuring responsibility and accountability for the research.

Another logistic issue had to do with managing the timescales involved in grant-funded philosophical research, which are often longer and potentially more uncertain than those in non-academic settings. For our partners, there was a significant lapse of time between our discussing the research with them, their agreeing to come on board as a partner, and the funding decision being made. Much can happen in this time, and in our case this included one of our partners being legislated out of existence by government, and the loss of one of our Partner Investigators who chose to bring forward her retirement. Before the award of funding, the New South Wales State Government dissolved SWAHS and replaced it with two Local Health Districts. This meant we were forced to negotiate with new people and organizations to try to secure an agreement to uphold the earlier arrangement. We were fortunate that one of the two Health Districts eventually agreed to come on board so that Western Sydney Local Health District became our new partner. This set in train a whole new sequence of paperwork on which all the team (11 Chief/Partner Investigators and five Partner Organizations) in addition to the funder (the ARC) were required to sign off.

We were fortunate that our grant was funded first time round, thereby compressing the timescales, since it is not uncommon for grants to be successful only after being submitted multiple times. In spite of receiving funding on the first attempt, there was still a lag of seven months between the decision and the funding beginning to flow. Since field philosophy prioritizes working with nonacademic partners, the mismatch between the timeframe of business and government and the timeframe of academic research may present an obstacle to achieving optimum results.

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