With just a few hours before he has to catch a plane to a Barcelona conference on third sector research, Pete Alcock is running through his plans for the new £9m Third Sector Research Centre. The centre, housed at the universities of Birmingham and Southampton, will start work in September.
"The biggest problem with current research is that it's been going on in silos," he says. "There's a fair amount of wheel reinvention, and we want to pull it together and identify the gaps."
Housing the centre in an academic environment has ruffled a few feathers among sector-based researchers, partly because Economic and Social Research Council funding meant that only institutions with council accreditation could bid. The centre's three 'capacity-building clusters', based in Lincoln, Middlesex and another institution yet to be named, all have such accreditation, and the agreed level of academic supervision it entails. However, only a minority of the PhD students working there on voluntary sector projects will actually be funded by the council.
The approach will not be entirely academic, says Alcock. "We want to recruit the dozen or so leading sector organisations as formal partners," he says. "We'll provide them with information, and they'll join our steering group to comment on our research plans. Different agencies have different interests - so we'll involve Acevo, for example, in a separate steering group for research that looks at public service delivery."
The centre will also call on the sector to disseminate its research to policy-makers and practitioners in return for academic advice through a new voucher scheme, based in the clusters. "Sector-based agencies often want bespoke advice, but they know they need it only when they've got a problem," he says. "So when they've got a question, they can cash in their vouchers and ring up an academic for advice."
Will it work? Alcock answers like a true academic: with more questions. "Will practitioners want to use academics? Will they value what the academics tell them? Will the academics give the practitioners the kind of advice they want? It will be very interesting to see."
Academic control will remain firmly with the academics, he says. "We want practitioners to inform the research agenda, not to set it. We're sure the new centre will help the sector, but it's not there just to be a booster for it." He admits that the centre's research might tell organisations things they don't want to hear - for example, that perhaps providing public services has damaged their ethos.
"Academic work must be theoretical, too," says Alcock. "We must gather data, but we also need to think. For example, what is the third sector?"
Here he outlines a triangle, with the 'third' sector in the middle, overlapping the public, private and 'informal' sectors (including families and neighbourhoods). The local playgroup overlaps with the informal babysitting circle, and social enterprise sits at the interface with the market. "You can understand the voluntary sector through its relationship with the other three sectors," he says.
Alcock, who has studied the Compact and its effectiveness, is cautious about the Conservative Party's proposals to give it statutory powers.
"It sounds like a good idea in principle," he says. "Both parties would know where they stood. But making it enforceable means going to court, and money that goes into lawyers' pockets, not into public services.
"That's one of the things we'll do research on. I'll give you a much more robust answer in a few years' time."
2008: Director, Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham University
1998: Professor of social policy and administration, head of School of Social Science, Birmingham University
1972: Research assistant, lecturer, then professor of social policy, Sheffield Polytechnic.