So, the day after enjoying the champagne to celebrate winning the grant for your new Research Centre, it’s time to start thinking about the follow-on funding. So soon? Yes, immediately!
That was just one of the messages to emerge from a fascinating Panel Session that brought together the Directors of three very different research centres that span several generations of Research Council thinking about the development and continuation of funded centres.
Professor Ian Hutchings heads up the Inkjet Research Centre (www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/irc/), the first cycle of which ran through 2005 to 2010. Bringing together a consortium of direct competitors in the sector, the centre researches questions of fundamental interest that would not otherwise be addressed.
Jennifer Schooling is Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (http://www-smartinfrastructure.eng.cam.ac.uk/), half funded by the Technology Strategy Board and focused on deploying technologies into an industry famous for its wafer-thin margins. And Chris Rider’s Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics (www-cikc.eng.cam.ac.uk/epsrc-centre-for-innovative-manufacturing-in-large-area-electronics/), launched in October 2013, is a multi-university collaboration led by the CIKC, www.cikc.org.uk which itself was an EPSRC funded Centre, with a core grant finishing in December 2012 and a continuing focus on printed and plastic electronics through new funding sources.
Several key messages were echoed by all:
- You must show success in your prior endeavours – why else would they back you?
- Simultaneously, you need to show that the second and subsequent generations of the work are exploring something new and something of great value.
Success and metrics are an obvious concern, but actually there are no clear and consistent definitions of success, nor are metrics imposed. Indeed, in some instances, the metrics initially promised are never revisited. However, there is no doubt that the research must deliver – both in papers and conference presentations and also to industrial collaborators. And responding to their needs with useful insights and technologies is just one place where you can enrol your industrial collaborators as your greatest supporters.
Finding the next and new direction to justify further funding will be tough – ‘the low-hanging fruit will have been picked’. Again, working closely with your industry supporters helps here. The industry will almost certainly have moved on during the first tranche of funding. So what matters now, what are the new questions, where do you need to look next? And how valuable will your new answers be?
Some Centres have had great success using roadmapping. The process helps build dialogue between industrialists and researchers, the map shows the significance of current research and how it links to market issues, and the thinking about the future envisages a number of directions that could turn into the next research agenda.
How else can your industrial collaborators help? As supporters they are at their most convincing when they are very specific in describing the value and importance of your work. They’ll be best able to do this if you involve them in the formulation of the research agenda and work programme. (By the way, boilerplate letters of support are useless – or worse). Why not ask your industrial partners to liaise with the Research Councils? The Councils are always trying to identify future directions and key issues so they’ll welcome a cogent position from industry. See, for example, the EPSRC’s Strategic Advisory Teams (www.epsrc.ac.uk/about/governance/sats/Pages/teams.aspx)
Think also about industrial players outside your immediate collaborators. One approach is to build and support a network of companies that meet for discussions and interaction with each other and the researchers. As well as appreciating the intrinsic value, such companies are usually happy to help you to discern critical industry issues for the future. Think about the ‘ecosystem’ around your research in order to find compelling reasons for the next big step. Consider also the Knowledge Transfer Networks – they’ll give you focused access to interested and engaged industrialists. (www.innovateuk.org/-/knowledge-transfer-networks)
Knowledge Transfer Partnerships provide an ideal way to cement a relationship between your research group and an industrial collaborator, especially if you’re trying to involve an SME. (See https://engineerimpact.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/knowledge-transfer-partnerships-disseminating-embedding-and-using-research-for-real/ for more information here)
For the researchers in Smart Infrastructure, industrial deployment is such a key focus, that the team is developing specific processes to get industry engaged and involved – so think about how you help your partners and the best ways of doing so.
Research Centres also develop assets, be they capital equipment or intellectual property. Surely this offers a stream of funding to support the research? Forget it for IP. The timescales for bringing research-based IP to an income stream are usually longer than the life of the centre. Complications of ownership and attribution of income make even minor contributions unlikely.
The significance and value of large capital assets are very sector-specific. In some cases expensive and rare facilities can provide cash flow, either as a resource made available to industry or as a basis for consultancy operations. More importantly, the right equipment can provide a foundation for the next generation of research and hence a compelling proposition to the Research Council for the cost-effectiveness of the next Centre.
Consultancy might be another option, but one that’s hard to manage. How does one manage priorities, cash flow and ownership of developing IP? Feasible, but difficult.
One area of importance is the availability of some uncommitted resource within the Centre to pursue the short-term imperatives and opportunities. If the Co-Investigators have their research teams fully committed then the Centre Director lacks resource to address things such as impact opportunities, the crafting of new proposals and all the activity associated with liaison with the industry partners. Therefore it’s vital to create and reserve some resource that can be deployed as needed. Indeed EPSRC has recognised this, to the point of advising it and, in some instances, requiring it, especially around the impact agenda
But what if it goes wrong and there is a gap in funding? How do you keep the team together? One answer is EU or perhaps HEIF funding, but this tends to be for later Technology Readiness Levels than most research centres. One option might be the Isaac Newton Trust that provides bridging funding (www.newtontrust.cam.ac.uk/research/index.html) – but you’ll need to be able to demonstrate when other sources of funding will kick in.
So that’s it then.
Oh yes, – and why that point about starting immediately to think about subsequent funding?
In fact, what you will do next, with whom and how will shape all the actions from your current research. And if you leave it too late you no longer have time to lay the foundations for the next round, to create the successes that will illustrate the value, or to discern the new directions that are so essential, to build the networks and relationships for the future. So start thinking about it now.