What is a Sandpit?
I spent last week (five days) at an ESRC sandpit. I had never heard of research sandpits before I applied for this one and I wanted to go simply because I was really excited by the theme: “Empathy and Trust in Communicating Online” (EMOTiCON). There was some big money on the table although, sadly, I was not involved in any of the successful projects. However, I found the sandpit experience exciting, stimulating and turbulent; overall I am very glad that I went. I now understand why fired candidates on The Apprentice say “Thank you for the opportunity” through gritted teeth as they leave the boardroom. I didn’t get what I wanted but certainly didn’t leave with nothing.
Sandpits are used by research funders (and other institutions) to generate and develop research ideas. The EPSRC has been running sandpits since 2003 but this was the first time that the ESRC had tried the method. The aim is to bring together academics from diverse disciplines to work on a problem and then to propose projects to address it. The working day started at 9 AM and finished at 6 PM but, in addition, all meals were eaten together and on the first two evenings there were post-dinner activities. On the final evening, the proposal submission deadline was 11pm. As well as the twenty-fine participants there were nine representatives from funding agencies, three mentors, the sandpit director and two professional facilitators.
The intensity of the sandpit was immense but extremely safe. There was no sense of being on the edge of conflict, even at the most pressured points. This, of course, was due to the skill with which the facilitators created and held the space. The first activity was to work in pairs to draw a picture of each other which seems easy but the twist was the that the drawing took place inside a paper bag and had to be a continuous line. The challenge with my partner was that every time she smiled, dimples appeared and these were not easy to include in a single line!
Over the first two and a half days the focus was on exploring the problem. The range of activities (all in groups or pairs) included mind-mapping, future-gazing, visual depictions and much more. There were also moments when individuals spoke to the group either through paired ‘buddy presentations’ or individual ‘sandboxes’. Throughout the first half of the week, people wrote questions on post-it notes which were placed on an ‘ideas wall’.
Early on Wednesday afternoon the sandpit moved into the second phase that began with a silent process of grouping the ideas wall post-its into themes. From these themes we generated a few large research questions and then people grouped around themes to begin the development of projects with the support of the mentors. During Wednesday afternoon and Thursday these projects were pitched to the whole group. Participants provided feedback on post-its and the funder/mentor panel provided gave collective verbal feedback. Throughout this phase, the projects and groups changed, collapsed and re-formed. Finally, by about 7:30 on Thursday evening, the groups had stabilised so that costed two-page proposals could be written and submitted. On Friday morning each of these projects was presented with no more than six slides and the panel went into conclave to make the final decision. Nine projects were presented and, of these, four received provisional approval.