An investigation of the development and management of university research institutes.

Author:Philbin, Simon P.


Historically, much academic work has been organized according to traditional subject areas, such as geography, business management, materials science, aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, and so on. Whilst a university's ability to provide a firm education and scholarship in these fundamental academic areas remains essential, not least in the sciences to ensure there is adequate coverage of the core underpinning scientific subjects (namely mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology), there is nevertheless an increasing focus on multidisciplinary academic work. Multidisciplinary approaches offer the potential to bring together different perspectives to address otherwise intractable problems (Haythornthwaite, 2006), and this is especially pertinent to academic areas that have developed in recent years and in parallel with modern technological advancements. Such multidisciplinary areas could include, for example, nanoscience and nanotechnology, forensics and criminal science, biomedical engineering, environmental science and climate change studies, systems engineering, and cybernetics. Correspondingly and over the last couple of decades there has been a proliferation of multidisciplinary institutes and research centres created at universities and other organizations such as hospitals to focus on these emerging areas of research. In this context, complex scientific, technological and engineering research problems increasingly require cooperative and collaborative efforts, as distinct from approaches in the past that involved highly individualised studies by scientists. Moreover, multidisciplinary research that crosses traditional academic boundaries and that can be governed by an implicit need for collaborative working has been described by Karlsson et al. (2008) as an important enabler of the learning process. This work emphasized the importance of open and honest communication within the collaborative environment, and that in collaborative learning the relationship between collaborators can be just as important as the actual knowledge generated.

In accordance with the emergence of multidisciplinary thinking at universities, there has been a greater availability of research funding for multidisciplinary research. This has provided universities with an external and financial stimulus to increase the level of collaboration among their departments (Harris, 2010) and specifically to develop and establish multidisciplinary institutes and research centres to deliver research and training capabilities to meet such a need. This interest spans the social sciences, such as geography (Bishop, 2009), as well as the physical and life sciences. In the latter case and as an illustrative point, there has, for example, been for a number of years substantial funding available for research on synchrotrons (Thompson, 2007), such as studies involving neutron scattering as a technique to probe the structure of condensed matter on a molecular scale. Synchrotrons are used to investigate a range of materials at the microstructure level, as well as biological systems, nanomaterials, and composite materials; these research endeavours inevitably require multidisciplinary efforts involving specialists from different areas.

This paper includes a literature review on the management of multidisciplinary research institutes, which will focus on identifying some of the challenges and issues associated with organizing academic work according to such structures. A case study investigation of a research institute located in the United Kingdom will allow the formulation of a systems view of institute management. Further analysis will include examination of the international dimensions of the case study. Concluding remarks will include recommendations for the management of university research institutes, as well as possible areas for further investigation. Within this article, institutes will be regarded as being broadly equivalent to research centres, although a range of organizational forms can be meant by either term.

Managing Multidisciplinary Institutes

Multidisciplinary institutes are generally regarded as 'centres of excellence' for a specific research topic (as opposed to a traditional discipline), and have often been established as a response to either a national research objective or a commercial funding opportunity. As can be discerned from the previous discussion, there are sound reasons for setting up multidisciplinary research institutes, but what are the challenges for managing these initiatives? Bozeman and Boardman (2003) have examined multidisciplinary university research centres as a nationally significant enabler for academic innovation. Their work included an analysis of the types of research centres and how they differ from traditional academic departments. Research in academic departments was perceived as highly decentralized, with principal investigators pursuing their own research agendas. Research centres, on the other hand, will likely feature a coordination of research from different faculty members to address a particular problem area. In regard to the operation of research centres, the authors point to the need to have effective reporting lines for leadership staff. Arrangements should take account of the historical context of the university, e.g., if there is a particularly strong school of engineering, it would make sense for the director of an engineering-based centre to report to the dean of this school and not to another part of the university. Bozeman and Boardman also emphasize the importance of research coordination and the distinctions between centre directors and administrative directors within centres, with the latter naturally taking the lead on managing administrative processes related to internal operations. The need for collaboration both within the centre and with other academic areas (within the university and also externally with other universities) is also mentioned.

On the matter of research collaboration, Ponomariov and Boardman (2010) have elucidated that university research centres can help facilitate multidisciplinary working between academic faculty, thereby improving institutional productivity. Their study found that association with research centres can increase the level of collaborative activity, leading to more joint publications with other disciplines and institutions. As a mechanism to focus collaborative academic work in a problem area that draws on different disciplines, university centres would therefore appear to be effective in producing the tangible outputs of such academic work, namely collaborative research publications. Further, a supportive climate for the generation of intellectual property (through patents and licence agreements) will also be required to contribute to research collaborations that involve companies (Thursby et al., 2001). This matter has been covered widely (Harris, 2007), and there is an obvious requirement for the necessary contractual arrangements to be in place to support the technology transfer process, such as contract clauses relating to the allocation of intellectual property (IP) rights for both background and foreground IP.

Returning to the management characteristics of university institutes, Feller et al. (2002) highlight the problems for U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) engineering research centres in gaining continued funding beyond the initial period of investment. This analysis underlines the need for new university institutes to establish robust business cases that will ensure funding over the medium-to-long term. This will likely be contingent on the institute positioning itself in a particular technical problem space in relation to relevant government and commercial sponsors of research, and then delivering research and teaching services in a sustainable framework. The challenges in managing new university institutes in this context would appear significant, and hence an adequate focus on financial sustainability for such initiatives is sensible.

Management of university centres can be viewed in terms of a development cycle, and Geisler et al. (1990) have identified critical success factors for industry-university cooperative research centres. They identified five groups of factors that can play a part in the development of centres: relations with the focal university, relations with industry, internal management, research and technology strategies, and the individual attributes of the founders and managers. Over the life of centres, different factors were of prominence, and in the early stages the founders need to have the required motivation and entrepreneurial vigour to bring together academics at the university and external associates. Later in the development of centres, there is a need for more extensive engagement with industrial partners as well as other activities, such as succession planning and the retention of key staff. This research provides a useful assessment of the management challenges for multidisciplinary institutes and the identification of factors that are important at different stages in the development of institutes.

Aligning research centres to the needs of government funding agencies or commercial sponsors can be an effective route to obtain funding, but such an approach can also bring inherent challenges. In this regard, Speier and Palmer (1998) looked at the Centre for Management information Systems (MIS) Studies at the University of Oklahoma. They found that there can be an ongoing "struggle" (p. 459) to ensure that the technical work carried out in the centre is of the required academic standard so that it can be published. This would infer the need for an appropriate balance between pursuing problem-driven work that is relevant to companies (although some of this may be consultancy-based) against intellectually rigorous research (either basic or applied) that can...

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