Aim for the centre

So they’re talking about amending the leg-before-wicket rule again. I don’t know why they bother for they’ll never get it right…”
— Opening lines of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser.

A Korean palace guard in traditional costume, with bow and sword

Bow, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

My university has rewritten its policy on research centres, to…

…optimise and support RMIT’s key research objectives through the identification and establishment of structured Research ‘Groups’, ‘Centres’, and ‘Institutes’…

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of having a research plan and building a network. As an aspirational aim, it doesn’t get much bigger than developing your own research centre. In this article, I’d like to talk about a couple of issues that you should think about when setting up your centre.

What’s the focus?

Centres don’t come out of nowhere. They are generally designed to provide focus – perhaps for a specific topic or a new methodology, or to bring forces to bear on a particularly messy problem.

The question of focus is important, as it will influence everything other decision that you make. Why does your centre exist? What makes it different? Where does it sit in the field (or fields) it is in? Having a tight focus will help you to attract good staff, explain yourself to donors, and make hard decisions when money is tight. The centres that I have worked for had completely different ways of operating because, in part, they had completely different foci.

Over time, focus can shift. That’s OK and natural. If a centre is doing its job, it is helping to shed light on its research area, so things will inevitably change. The problems come when no-one is tracking that change. Or, more to the point, people can see that things have changed, but nobody has enunciated it.

This can be a problem for the staff – they are working on something that is different from what they signed on for. It can be a problem for other researchers in the field – they expect you to be working on a topic, but you don’t seem to be doing that anymore. And it can be a problem for funding bodies – they gave you funds to work on some problem, but you are now doing something else.

Mostly, this is about managing expectations, and making sure that the world at large understands how the new focus relates to the core problem. It is worthwhile doing that, because clarifying it for outside people might help to crystallise it for the people within the centre, too.

Who’s in charge?

Centres are often created and driven by a strong leader. Strong leaders can be hugely inspirational, but they are not always easy to work with. Then again, being a centre director isn’t all fun and games. They have a pretty ugly job description.

Centre directors need to be entrepreneurial when talking to potential donors, strategic when selecting new staff, intransigent when wrestling with university administration, sympathetic when dealing with staff, a wizard when it comes to budgeting, and single-minded to get their own work done. But just because all of those attributes are needed doesn’t mean that they are always present. No-one I know has all these skills. Centre directors can be very talented, but they can’t do everything.

Some of this can be ameliorated with good staff. There might be a deputy director who understands university administration, a personal assistant who also doubles as an HR counselor, or an administrative officer with an accounting degree.

The problem is that leaders sometimes disappear. They might retire, receive an irresistible offer elsewhere, have a falling out with the university, meet with misadventure, or win the lottery. However it happens, it is important that there is a succession plan for replacing the leader. Lots of centre directors don’t seem to think about succession planning. They worry about it, but they don’t actually plan for it.

Even if they do have a succession plan in place, it can be tricky to execute within the confines of a university administration. Universities require competitive transparency in their hiring processes (as they should). They have a whole range of administrative processes that need to be undertaken to bring someone new on board. The process is generally confidential. This can make the process drawn out (sometimes over a year for a large centre) and seemingly secretive. The staff in the centre, external colleagues and funding agencies need to understand what is going on. Someone needs to be talking to them during the interregnum so that they understand that the centre is still on track and doing good work. Normally, that person would be the centre director, but if they’ve already vacated that role, it falls to the acting director or deputy director. Given this situation, it is important that:

(a) there is an acting director who has authority to act, and
(b) they have been introduced to, or briefed on, the key people to talk to and what the actual processes are.

Where’s the money coming from?

There is a very simple and clear blueprint for a sustainable research centre: you need to have more money coming in than you are spending. You heard it here first, folks!

This may seem obvious, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. Most research centres I know don’t have a teaching program. That means that they can’t depend on student fees as a predictable income stream. They are running on ‘soft’ money – grants and other income that have a fixed duration. They are often hungry for funding, which can be productive, but it also makes them vulnerable to sudden changes of direction (when a big grant comes in). It can mean that their staff precariously employed. However, it also means that you don’t need to spend time enrolling, teaching, marking, administering, and graduating students. That time can be spent on research.

Some centres have one predictable source of funding, perhaps it’s a government department, philanthropic organisation, or particular funding scheme. That works really well until policy changes, funding gets tight, or the competition starts to do better than you do.

To keep the funding coming in and prevent starvation, centres need to think like a kindergarten. That is, they should diversify a bit and look for sources of funding outside their usual envelope. When the Web was very new, Sunrise Research Laboratory (where I worked, an eon ago) made CDs filled with simple tutorials and good examples. Schools loved them and they sold like hot-cakes. They fitted with the core vision of improving technology in education, and were a useful source of funds. This isn’t an activity that would usually be classed as ‘research’, but it did allow us to do other activities, like work on international standards, that were research.

One of the difficulties of a diversified pool of funding is that it can be difficult to explain to a university that it is secure. Universities are used to dealing with regular government funding and student fees. They are used to the illusion of safe, reliable funding sources. Their accounting system operates like a government department, while a centre has to operate like a small business. It is hard for them to understand that you will sell 1,000 CDs next year, even if you sold 1,000 CDs last year. The only advice that I have is to find someone in the accounting department who thinks that your business plan is sound, and they can speak on your behalf to the broader university.

Who’s in and who’s out?

Some centres are very clearly defined. They have their own staff, own premises, and own logo. Sometimes, they are separately constituted organisations that are independent in their own right.

Others are more amorphous. They are part of a university, housed within a department and draw staff from within the university faculty. It can feel like they don’t exist except in the minds of the centre’s members, and as a designated account code within university finance.

If that is the case, it can be unclear to outsiders who is a member of the centre and who isn’t. It is worth setting out the process for selecting people to be a part of your centre. What are the minimum requirements and what do they need to be working on? Do they need to bring their own funding with them, or is it enough that they are doing good research?

Is it worth planning and reviewing your structure from time to time? What is your preferred split between experienced researchers, early career researchers, post-docs, and post-graduate students? If you only have experienced researchers, then there is no growth for the future. If you only have early career researchers then you may not have the oomph to bring about the change or impact you want to make.

These choices are governed by the process of advertising for staff, where you can delineate your requirements in an advertisement. At other times, you will have academics at your university who would like to become members, and there needs to be some criteria for deciding whether they are a good fit or not.

One simple process that will give you control over your membership is to set a minimum level of performance. If people don’t reach that performance level, they are no longer considered a member of the centre, or their membership comes up for review. This can be useful when taking on relatively unknown members. It can also be handy when Grand Old Scholars start to rest on their laurels.

To set these performance levels or member attributes requires you to a clear idea of what your centre’s setting out to achieve.

Which brings us back to the initial question: What is the aim for your centre?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

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