Group of Eight Australia
Australia's Leading Universities

Module 2: Commencement and Collaboration: Putting Ideas Into Practice

Frequently asked questions

1. What different types of funding sources are out there? What do they expect in return for their support?

Funding from research may come from:

  • dedicated funding agencies such as the ARC or NHMRC
  • within your university
  • research collaborators (more likely to be in-kind rather than monetary funding)
  • outside organisations, such as industry partners, government agencies, non-profit organisations, or community groups.

The obligations toward the funding body may be explicitly stated in a funding agreement or may be assumed. Obligations are likely to include:

  • regular reporting of research progress
  • accurate accounting of the use of all provided funds
  • acknowledgement of the support in all communication material (publications, websites, media releases).

Other requirements that may be necessary, depending on the nature of the funding body, may include:

  • reciprocal in-kind support
  • support of promotional activities.

Examine official documentation closely to determine what obligations you may be accepting alongside the funding. Speak to a mentor or other experienced researcher to determine what commitments to funding agencies are usually acceptable, what commitments are assumed, and what is provided out of courtesy.

2. I'd like to start a collaboration with a research team from another university. How can I make this collaboration official?

  • When pursuing a collaboration, look for collaborators who can provide something – such as expertise or equipment – and to whom your research group can provide something in return. Spend time discussing the collaboration with the potential collaborators, try to understand their research culture, and what each party would expect from the other.
  • Application for a joint grant will cement a collaboration and commit the relationship to the research target. Discuss the collaboration with your research office or legal office if there are any details (such as IP) that need to be ironed out prior to commencement.

3. I've designed a budget for my research project. How can I ensure that everyone sticks to the budget?

This depends on the governance structure of the project, which in turn depends upon the size of the project.

In a small project, such as one incorporating a chief investigator (CI) and a small number of staff, all expenditure should be submitted to the CI for approval. In controlling the budget, the CI can seek assistance from their department/centre financial staff, or their university finance office.

In a medium-sized project, such as a cross-institutional collaboration, the total funding provided should be distributed among the collaborators as per agreement. The CI of a single group in the collaboration must then approve all spending within their allotted budget.

In a large project, such as a centre, a chief operations officer or financial officer should be appointed to oversee all budgeting. This person should be trained or experienced in financial management and as such should be able to guide others in the centre in responsible use of funds.

4. What are the differences between goals, research targets, milestones, and deliverables?

Goals are a property of individuals or stakeholder groups in the project, and reach beyond the research project. Examples of individual goals may be publications, career advancement, working in a team, or simply enjoying work and having fun. Goals of a stakeholder group, such as a research centre, may include growth, attracting more graduate or undergraduate students, or increasing their profile in the community.

Research targets are components of the research that must be completed, as set out in a grant document. In most instances, research targets directly relate to the answering of 'research questions'.

Milestones are events or outcomes that indicate progress against a timeline. They may be related to individual research targets, groups of research targets, or other outcomes.

Deliverables are substantial, useable outcomes of the research. For example:

  • products
  • prototypes
  • data sets or databases
  • publications.

5. Why do I have to prepare so many plans – a budget, a financial plan, research plan, staff development plan, communication plan? I just want to do some research!

If time is spent at the outset of a project in planning the project and positioning for greatest efficiency, then you may happily return to the laboratory (or elsewhere) to do what you do best! Research is fundamentally unpredictable, and by having a flexible plan, the project will adjust to unpredictable events and will continue on its course despite the effect of uncontrollable factors.

It tends to be that when planning is at a minimum, less research gets done as more time is spent restructuring and organising in the absence of any clear plan.

6. How do postgraduate students differ from other staff with respect to intellectual property (IP)?

Under Australian Law, the IP generated by an employee is considered to be the property of the employer.

However, postgraduate students are considered to be the owner of any IP that they generate. This may result in some confusion if the student is simultaneously employed in the same area of research. When collaborators are involved, there may be formal agreements in place to decide the ultimate ownership of any IP. University policies typically dictate the sharing of any profits arising from the commercialisation of IP.

Note that this is a complex legal issue, and as such should be approached and agreed upon by all parties before the IP and potential commercialisation is produced. Commercialisation offices in universities should be able to assist with this process.

7. How can I predict what intellectual property (IP) will come out of the project? How will I know if the knowledge can be commercialised?

Any knowledge that is created through running the project – including research outcomes, data, publications, products, techniques, or expertise – is project IP, which is different to background IP (IP brought to the project by individuals or collaborators). Often the IP produced will tie in with the research targets, although research can throw up unexpected results, so be prepared for unexpected IP.

If IP has potential commercial value – that is, it is new, has value, and could be applied in a manner that people would pay for – then it may represent a commercial opportunity. You should then contact your university's commercialisation office. Further information on IP and commercialisation is available in ‘Module 4: Intellectual Property and Commercialisation’.

8. What is the 'public profile' of my research project?

The 'public' is difficult to define exactly, but in terms of your research project, you can consider the public as anyone not directly, or even indirectly, involved in the project, the field or fields of research, or the relevant institutions. Put more simply, it's everyone who has nothing to do with the project and has only lay knowledge of the relevant subject.

Your project's public profile is everything that this group – the public – think or feel or understand about your project. Unfortunately, that may or may not be strongly aligned to the truth regarding the project. The public profile is built up by many things in the public eye, including:

  • media surrounding the project and similar projects
  • preconceived ideas regarding your topic of research, or research in general
  • information released by the project to enhance its public profile, such as:
    • press releases
    • articles in the popular press
    • public or media appearances by key figures
    • a website.

Looking at these points, it is clear to see that it is best to release information and control public perception where possible, rather than to leave it to fickle media and public preconceptions.

9. Does my project need a website? What should I consider when setting up a website?

A website can be a valuable addition to a project, creating a public profile and giving funding organisations, collaborators, and staff members some recognition. However, it must be understood that the information on a website is publically available, so what is posted on the website must be carefully monitored to avoid releasing sensitive information or any restricted IP. The website should adopt a consistent look and feel, often within a standard university template, and be updated regularly.

Approach your university's media office (or similar local service) to learn more about the benefits and dangers of a website, and for assistance in building a website that best serves your purposes.

10. When appointing staff, do I need to go through the advertising process? Can't I just appoint my recently-graduated PhD student?

  • Appointment of staff without advertising can be done, provided it can be justified and certain conditions are met. These conditions vary from university to university, so the first step would be to contact your local Human Resources department.
  • Typical justification for appointment without advertising would be:
    • extending the term of currently-employed staff
    • appointing an individual who has been named in a grant application document
    • employment to meet pressing short-term needs
    • employment by invitation (typically only for senior level staff)
    • casual appointments.

11. What is a communication plan and why do I need one?

Communication involves the transfer of knowledge within the project and also outside the project. When we consider that knowledge, or IP, can be both valuable and volatile, it is clear that careful management of this resource is essential.

A communication plan manages the flow of communication much in the way a budget controls where money goes. A communication plan outlines:

  • who you communicate to (different stakeholders)
  • who in your organisation does the communicating
  • what is communicated (and what is NOT communicated)
  • how it is communicated (telephone call, written report, email, notice on web page)
  • when it is communicated (regularly, annually, on milestone completion, on completion, or when something goes wrong?)
  • and why it is communicated.

A communication plan may also outline the layout or format of different documents or websites. This can help to form a united image of all communication from the group.