researchtopoct

If you are a highly productive researcher, chances are good that you have considered starting a research center, institute, or consortium. Chances are also good that you shelved the idea, planning to get back to it when you had more time. The purpose of this month's column is to rekindle interest in starting those organizations, which I will refer to generally as "collectives."

Why should you invest your valuable time establishing a collective? A successful research organization will attract more and much larger grants than most principal investigators can command on their own. And once a collective has secured external funding, support usually continues for several years—sometimes decades. Multi-year funding provides a research director with two precious luxuries: the ability to establish long-range plans and enhanced opportunities to innovate.

Battle Plan
Most successful collectives have three characteristics: 1) they receive the bulk of their funding from sources outside the university; 2) they principally fund professors in academic departments; and 3) they pursue research that will help professors get promoted or tenured and produce high-quality publications. Collectives that violate any of these three tenets run the risk of clashing with academic departments. If this conflict exists at your school, your dean needs to address this organizational issue immediately.

Rather than competing directly with academic departments, collectives can exploit areas that are beyond a department's normal boundaries. For example, they can allow an engineering school or college to aggressively attack a technology area that cuts across disciplinary lines. In most cases, academic departments have difficulty pursuing such interdisciplinary research.

Research organizations also afford deans some space to take chances and innovate. If a center is created, does good work, and then dies after a dozen years, it's not a catastrophe. Those of you who have had the misfortune of watching an academic department shut down would probably agree that losing a department has far graver consequences.

Collectives are also excellent vehicles for fostering partnerships with industry and state government. Industry in particular has become an extremely important player in engineering education. I refer you to the report Engineering Education for a Changing World, co-authored by members of the ASEE Engineering Deans Council and the ASEE Corporate Roundtable, in which references to industrial relevance recur like a mantra. (The report is available online at www.asee.org/pubs2/html/greenworld.htm, and from ASEE headquarters, (202) 331-3556.)

Ready, Set, Whoa!
So you're convinced of the benefits of a collective, you have several potential funding sources and some fantastic research topics, and you're ready to pitch the idea? Hold on. Consider first that the professors who will be doing the research must enthusiastically buy into the idea or they will not contribute effectively. Research plans are most often successful when developed from the bottom up, so involve all potential members of your collective in the initial planning.

On the other hand, industrial support is most easily developed from the top down. If you or your dean can convince a CEO or vice-president to embrace your research vision, the lower-level managers with whom you'll be working will follow.

Ruling with a Velvet Hand
The successful director of a collective is not a czar, but more of a facilitator/coordinator/visionary who creates an environment conducive to successful research. For example, by providing a competent administrative staff capable of handling reports, assisting with renewals, and facilitating technology transfer, among other tasks, a research director can help make faculty members productive and happy.

Rookie directors, especially, should keep in mind that communication and trust between all parties (including the sponsors) are essential to keeping the organization healthy and growing. Remember: If the collective does not deliver the goods, it will most certainly lose backing and die.

As with all research enterprises, there is a substantial element of risk associated with establishing a collective. Risking public failure in an attempt to establish any new significant venture is part of the game, but the rewards can be great.

Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins University. The opinions in this article are solely his.

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