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Catalyzing Clusters of Research Excellence: An Institutional Case Study

By SRAI News posted 07-09-2019 10:25 AM

Authored by Kyle W. Demes, Director, Institutional Strategic Awards, Simon Fraser University; Gail C. Murphy, Vice-President, Research & Innovation; Professor, Computer Science; & Helen M. Burt, Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation; Professor, Pharmaceutical Sciences, The University of British Columbia

In a series of articles, we will present the newest in research administration from the Journal of Research Administration. Read the full JRA here.

Research clusters and teams generate high-impact knowledge and research that contribute to solving big open questions, the last 5-10 years have seen an increase in big-ticket research opportunities for team-science. Canadian examples include Canada First Research Excellence Fund ($1.25B CAD since 2012; CFREF, 2017), Networks of Centres of Excellence ($560M CAD since 2012; NCE, 2017), Canada Foundation for Innovation, and dozens of intermediary team/partnership grants through other federal programs. Similar programs are found globally, e.g., NSF Engineering Research Centers (US), Centres of Research Excellence (Australia), and Horizon 2020 (European Union). In all of these granting programs, foundational components of the evaluation and selection process are the level of excellence of the individuals involved (i.e., traditional research metrics) and the strength and cohesion of the team (e.g., proven track record of the group’s ability to work together as a team). The Canadian NCE program even requires applicants to explicitly justify the synergies of the team that enable the award to have greater impacts than equivalent grants to individual researchers.

The role of institutions in these large-scale programs often seems to be reduced to ensuring compliance, reporting, and providing matched funding for large team grants in the form of cash (e.g., Department, Faculty, and Central funds) and in-kind (administrative and reporting support, space, etc.) contributions. However, for the administration and leadership at an institution to enable faculty to facilitate the creation of truly transformative research programs and therefore to be more successful in these competitions, we need to proactively consider how to develop institutional practices that encourage the development and growth of such research clusters even before particular funding opportunities are known.

A recent review of the benefits for, and risks to, individual researchers participating in team grants called for institutions to increase their support and recognition of team science participants. Indeed, establishing and supporting clusters of research excellence now commonly appears in institutional research strategic plans, in one form or another. However, despite a wealth of literature providing researchers with motivation to participate in team science and examples of previous successes, minimal guidance is available to institutions on developing policies and processes to support the development of interdisciplinary clusters of research excellence.

Over the last three years, we have piloted institutional support for the development of research clusters. In this paper, we suggest a framework for identifying, evaluating, and catalyzing clusters of research excellence. We describe and justify our approach, providing specific examples of internal processes and analytical tools that we have implemented and end by discussing challenges and early successes of the program, summarizing lessons learned. We hope that this paper will be useful for other institutions and will spark further dialogue about the roles that institutional administration and leadership can play in supporting research clusters.