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.
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!
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
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.