The implementation of the sandpit methodology by research funding agencies: considerations regarding inclusion, diversity, equity, and access

Over the last years, funding agencies have committed to promote equity in the academic world. For instance, in order to be eligible to apply for Horizon Europe grants, it is now necessary that higher education establishments and research organizations have a Gender Equality Plan. Furthermore, the Dutch Research Council (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek; NWO) has developed the Hestia program which aims to finance positions for academics with a refugee status to be able to further develop their scientific careers. They also reinstated the Mosaic program to stimulate the influx of PhD students with non-western migration backgrounds. 

More recently, the NWO has initiated a new funding instrument “Advancing Equity in Academia through Innovation”. The goal of this instrument is to contribute to equity of underrepresented ethnic groups within academia in the Netherlands and to create a more inclusive cultural climate. The consortia who received the funding were announced on 22 March, and include projects on integrating different perspectives to promote inclusion, breaking uniformity within academia, and examining the implementation of quotas. A co-creation platform for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion will also be developed. 

One way in which this funding instrument stands out is the way the consortia and the research projects were developed: the NWO decided to use the so-called “sandpit” or “idealab” model. This is an intensive multi-day brainstorming event that aims to facilitate the formation of interdisciplinary consortia and the development of innovative research proposals.

“It is wonderful that funding agencies pay increasing attention to inclusion, diversity, equity and access”, states Chief Diversity Officer Prof. Semiha Denktaş. “There are many inequalities in the academic world, so it is important that there are specific funding instruments to tackle these inequalities. However, an important part of promoting equity in academia is to also reflect on inequalities in the way consortia are created and grants are awarded.” Together with her colleagues from the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access) Center and Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Dr. Helen Tibboel, Dr. Gwen de Bruin, and Dr. Kevin Pijpers, Prof. Denktaş co-authored a paper about the mechanisms of exclusion that are present within the sandpit model.

Disadvantaged groups in the sandpit

The sandpit is a multi-day, intensive, and interactive workshop, where (net)working is stimulated during evenings and lunch breaks as well. The goal of a sandpit is that different interdisciplinary consortia are formed, and that these consortia compete to obtain funding for their research proposals. Furthermore, sandpits provide a unique opportunity for participants to expand their network for future multidisciplinary research collaborations.

However, not everyone might be able to experience these benefits equally. In fact, the sandpit can reflect the hierarchies within the academic world: those who have a lot to offer in terms of having a strong and powerful network, a permanent contract, a lot of experience in research and obtaining grants, and who come from wealthy labs or universities (that might give extra financial support to finance the proposal) will be very desirable partners for a consortium. In contrast, early career researchers (ECRs) might have less to offer and will therefore miss out on an opportunity to be part of a successful consortium.

Furthermore, it is important that you have the time to attend a sandpit, including the evenings and other breaks. Here, caregivers and academics with a high teaching load are at a disadvantage: they might need to miss parts of the workshop to perform formal or informal care or teaching tasks. This means they might miss crucial developments.

These issues are related to inequalities in race and gender: women often have more care responsibilities and more teaching duties compared to men. Furthermore, women, people of color, non-western migrants, and people from the global south are increasingly represented among the group of ECRs but remain underrepresented in the higher levels of academia.

Another diversity dimension that should be considered is neurodiversity: for people with high sensory sensitivity, people who are more introverted, people who are on the autistic spectrum or people with attention deficit hyperactivity, the sandpit is not an optimal place to develop innovative research plans. Furthermore, it is important to think about participants with functional impairments. If a venue is not easily accessible and the program does not allow for rest, this can be an important barrier for people with support needs. 

The lack of inclusion in sandpits is disappointing for many reasons: on the one hand, underrepresented groups might feel excluded and will have fewer opportunities to receive funding. Furthermore, it means consortia miss out on valuable creative input from a large part of the academic population.


Sandpits and other initiatives that are aimed to stimulate innovative research should have the goal to make this process equitable, easily accessible, and inclusive. They end their article with several suggestions to improve the sandpit model. For instance, they note that sandpit organizers should reflect on the eligibility criteria and the accessibility of the event. Ideally, they should involve crucial underrepresented groups in the organization process so they can more easily take the needs of diverse groups of people into account. Furthermore, they emphasize how the facilitators who guide the process should focus on equity during the whole sandpit and to make sure that every attendee gets the opportunity to flourish and to be heard.

You can download and read the full article below.

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