Multi-institution research centers: Planning and management challenges.

Author:Spooner, Catherine
Position:Report - Abstract

Abstract: Funding multi-institution centers of research excellence (CREs) has become a common means of supporting collaborative partnerships to address specific research topics. However, there is little guidance for those planning or managing a multi-institution CRE, which faces specific challenges not faced by single-institution research centers. We conducted qualitative research to identify the challenges faced by an Australian program of multi-institution CREs with a view to identifying lessons for the future. This paper describes two of the most significant challenges: administrative complexity and investigator engagement. Administrative tasks (e.g.: establishing partner contracts and recruitment) were significantly more complex and time-consuming in the multi-institution CREs than single-institution research centers. Investigator engagement was hampered by a range of factors, including differing expectations within the investigator team and between the team and the funding body in relation to investigator roles as well as investigator capacity. We conclude with a discussion of key strategies that cut across the challenges: 1) early planning, 2) communication and 3) management capacity.

Keywords: collaboration, multi-institution, university research centers, research collaborations, organizational design, virtual organizations


A range of collaborative models is increasingly used in the research field because of the benefits collaboration can provide (Bozeman & Boardman, 2003; Jones, Wuchty, & Uzzi, 2008; van Rijnsocver & Hessels, 2011; Wuchty, Jones, & Uzzi, 2007). The model might include researchers and people or organizations that might use or be affected by the research (e.g. communities, policy makers, health providers). In such cases, collaboration aims to increase the appropriateness and feasibility of research, and to increase the likelihood that the research will be implemented (Edelstein, 2015). The model might include researchers that differ in some way to each other, for example, in disciplinary background, research experience and/or location. This can provide interdisciplinary perspectives to complex problems, broaden the geographic spread of data collection sites and networks, and increase the range and depth of research experience brought to the project (Bindler, Richardson, Daratha, & Wordell, 2012; Wagner et al., 2011).

A Center of Research Excellence (CRE) is a type of research collaboration that conducts research in a defined area. Not all CREs are the same. The CRE funding scheme objectives, duration and amount of funding, requirements, allowable expenses (e.g. direct research costs, capacity building and knowledge translation and exchange (KTE)) and expected outputs are some of the areas in which the schemes vary. There are multiple flinders of CREs focusing on health issues around the world, each with their own funding rules. Examples of funders include the National Institutes of Health in the United States of America, and the British Heart Foundation and Networks of Centers of Excellence of Canada. In Australia, the largest funder of CREs relating to health is the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The NHMRC awarded grants for 19 new CREs in 2015 alone (NHMRC, 2015).

As part of the Australian Government's Primary Health Care Research, Evaluation and Development (PHCRED) Strategy Phase 3 (2010-2014), (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2010), a specific CRE-funding scheme was established to facilitate research and to build the capacity of the primary health care research sector.

Nine CREs were funded under this scheme, which was administered by the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute (APHCRI) at the Australian National University (ANU). The APHCRI CREs had to be a collaboration of two or more institutions and could be virtual organizations. Funding was not recurrent and generally limited to four years. One university in the partnership was the administering institution who signed the head agreement with the ANU and received the CRE funding. The administering institution had contracts or agreements with other partner organizations that guided the nature of their relationships including reporting arrangements and disbursement of funds. The distribution of the funds between the partners did not need to be established as part of the head agreement.

Unlike many CRE-funding schemes, substantial funding was provided for direct research costs and for KTE, which was considered a priority. Another distinctive feature of the scheme was that the funding body (APHCRI) established and managed a network of the nine CREs to promote relationships with, and between, the CREs and the key stakeholders (APHCRI Research Advisory Board, Department of Health, Primary Health Care Research and Information Service). The APHCRI CREs are the focus of this paper.

A model of an APHCRI multi-institution CRE with four partners is presented in Figure 1. The number of partner institutions within Australia in these CREs ranged from three to 14. Most of the CREs had international partners who were not expected to be as involved as local institutions.

Multi-institution CREs have certain strengths but they also present particular challenges that need to be effectively managed. For example, differences between partners' viewpoints and expectations can lead to conflict which can prevent people from working together effectively (Bammer, 2008b) and collaborative research requires substantial transaction costs (Landry & Amara, 1998).

Literature to guide the establishment and management of a multi-institution research center is sparse. Universities often provide their staff with guidance on establishing a single-institution research center and literature exists on managing collaborative partnerships and projects, (Bammer, 2008a; Chung, Song, & Group, 2010) managing virtual (business) teams, (Ale Ebrahim, Ahmed, & Taha, 2009; Hertel, Geister, & Konradt, 2005; Hunsaker & Hunsaker, 2008) and (more generally) project management (Project Management Institute, 2013). However, these sources do not address the confluence of issues of a multi-institution research center.

One resource with this focus was developed by staff of Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) funded by the National Science Foundation in the USA, based upon their experience of multi-institution research centers (Engineering Research Centers, 2012). The ERC resource described administrative challenges they considered unique to multi-institution research centers. These challenges related to the highly complex structure of the institution that comprised a large number of stakeholders, widely diverse research priorities and agendas, different institutional cultures, and institution specific administration processes. The organizational and administrative complexity and the time and effort dedicated to developing consensus and communication between stakeholders required highly sophisticated administrative structures and additional resources to support the work.

Other problems identified by the ERC resource related to the determining of partnership agreements between and among institutions, conflicts involving the scheduling of multi-institution activities due to the demands of different academic calendars, and substantial travel-related costs for Center-wide events. The resource proposed that effective communication is key to achieving multi-institution cohesiveness and focus and that meetings via teleconference or videoconference are critical to operational success. While this resource is useful, it might not be applicable to the APHCRI multi-institution research centers with their different context (Australia) and focus (primary health care). Further, it was informally compiled, so was not representative of all ERC experiences.

This paper presents the key findings of an Australian qualitative study that examined the challenges experienced when establishing and managing APHCRI CREs. The exploration of this issue was triggered when two APHCRI CREs managers (CS and LL) noticed that other APHCRI CRE managers were dealing with similar management problems that seemed to stem from the CRE multi-institutional structure. Managers, however, did not usually discuss these problems or their solutions between themselves. Consequently, CS and LL drafted a record of the challenges faced and the lessons learned in establishing and managing their CREs to guide the development of a resource for investigators and managers involved in establishing other multi-institution CREs. To ensure the data summary table record reflected the experience of all nine multi-institution CREs, a qualitative research study was undertaken.

An organizational partnership model was developed based on other models (Bryson, Crosby, &amp...

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