PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
teaching toolbox
Joining Forces

by Douglas M. Green

For research success, collaboration is key.

Engineering professors and industrial partners have worked together on research projects for decades, forging high-profile relationships that have led to many important discoveries. But another kind of partnership—between various academic units—is also valuable in creating alliances that enhance grantsmanship success and research effectiveness.

Teamwork Between Departments

    One of the simplest inter-unit academic partnerships arises when investigators from different departments in the same engineering college or school decide to conduct research together. Policies and procedures in departments at the same college are usually identical, but if procedural differences do exist, the department chairs can usually work out equitable compromises.

    Even at this modest level of collaboration, all departments represented on a research team must view the common effort as a win-win situation, or their efforts will usually be sub-optimal. The notion of "do us a favor now, and we will do you a favor in the future" sows the seeds of a potential interdepartmental feud—clearly something to be avoided.

    Because colleges or schools within a university also normally share similar policies, collaboration between those units is usually no more complex than between departments in the same school. In this case, the respective deans can iron out differences in procedures, and the provost's office can help overcome inter-school barriers.

Partnerships Between Universities

    The most complex of academic collaborative relationships are inter-university partnerships, but they can also reap much greater rewards.

    On large proposals, most universities find that they do not have an ace researcher to cover every technology. There is always the temptation to force-fit a local second-tier investigator into a key research slot, but granting agencies and industry are more impressed when outstanding researchers occupy all key leadership positions. Agencies find a dream team hard to resist, and such a group will normally attract enough funding to provide opportunities for developing local researchers, as well.

    Cooperation by universities also provides invaluable communication channels between institutions, and it is a major advantage to get expert critiques from and co-authorship with top researchers at other universities.

But even with these advantages, working with other universities is not without its difficulties, especially if there is no track record of collaboration between the two institutions. Here are some typical steps needed before finalizing any collaborative agreement:

  1. Spell out in advance exactly how much research funding each university will receive. While you should allow some flexibility in future funding, you always need a basic agreement on which all parties can rely.
  2. Establish the precise way the universities will divide the facilities and administration funds. Government guidelines make it easier to apportion the money for these indirect costs such as fringe benefits and utility bills, but universities should still put the agreement in writing.
  3. Define how intellectual property proceeds will be distributed.
  4. Work out an inter-university publication review policy.

The purpose of these inter-university agreements is to establish a "meta-university" to facilitate a specific research effort. But creating a productive research environment between universities is especially challenging because university presidents do not have the time (or, sometimes, the expertise) to negotiate the terms and conditions, nor to work out procedural differences. You might say that you are working without a net.

Though there are potential hurdles to overcome, shaking hands and joining forces with your colleagues can turn a good project into a great one.


Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
and dean of engineering at Marquette University.

engineering Grant Opportunities

Procter & Gamble University Exploratory Research Program

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: maximum $75,000 a year for up to two years
    Deadline: Jan. 15
    Description: Exploratory research within chemical engineering and process technology
    Contact: Program Administrator; fax (513) 627-1153; e-mail:; or see

DOT Grants for Innovative Bridge Research

    Number: 60 in 1999
    Amount: $50,000 to $1.5 million
    Deadline: April 1
    Description: Engineering design criteria for products and material use in highway bridges and structures
    Contact: George Romack, Office of Engineering, FHWA; (202) 366-4606; or see

DOI Earthquake Hazards Reduction Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $6,000 to $1.1 million; average $56,000
    Deadline: contact sponsor
    Description: Research in engineering design applications to mitigate earthquake losses
    Contact: John D. Unger; Earthquake Hazards Office; (703) 648-6722; or see

NSF Arctic Research Grants

    Number: ~360
    Amount: $216,000 to $13.5 million
    Deadlines: Feb. 15, Aug. 1
    Description: Research design manufacturing and industrial innovation, and civil and mechanical systems
    Contact: Program Director, Arctic Sciences, Division of Polar Sciences; (703) 306-0139; or see
    / .

Grant profiles reprinted from Directory of Research Grants 1999; Oryx Press; 1999; 1,232 pp., $135. Used with permission from Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799;

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