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Module 2: Commencement and Collaboration – Putting Ideas Into Practice

1.1 Finding the right collaborator/partner

If you have already established partnerships and collaborations that are working well for you there is no need to complete topic 1.1.

There are no rules for finding the right collaborator. This can vary from researcher to researcher, project to project, and may be very different at different times of your research career. Some researchers find a small group of collaborators (individuals and organisations) they work with early on in their career and that they then work with from that point on. Others prefer to build wide collaborator networks. For some researchers a “collaborator I feel I can work with” is what is most important. For them it is no good having the chance to work with the ‘top’ person or the lead organisations in their field if it is going to be a miserable experience.

Others look for individuals that meet the gaps in their skills and style so that together the result is likely to be stronger than if either one completed the project on their own. What is important is that you give some priority to your choice of individuals and organizations that you collaborate with.

It is also important to look outside your normal networks for collaborators. It is natural to select collaborators based on closeness of research culture. Be mindful that sometimes the best opportunities lie outside your existing network. Keep in mind when pursuing these collaborations that different organisations can have vastly different cultures and modus operandi. Invest time in understanding these cultures and don't take it for granted that collaborators will operate under the same cultural boundaries as you. You need to be clear about expectations from the beginning. It is too easy to let things go at the beginning, with the feeling that it will work out as the project progresses.

Below is a list of issues to consider in a potential collaboration. Add others to the list if you can:

  • Is there a shared vision for the research?
  • Is there a shared passion for the research?
  • Is there respect between both parties?
  • Are the working styles compatible?

Why form a collaboration:

Your motivation to undertake a collaborative project will come from the benefits afforded by the collaboration. The same is true for your collaborator(s). Benefits of collaboration may include:

  • Being able to fund additional R&D activities
  • Building long-term partnerships
  • Enhancing research activities (e.g. by being able to access state-of-the-art equipment, by improving project management skills, or by complementing your research team with new skills and techniques developed in industry)
  • Identifying research which you can do together but not independently – decide on objectives together
  • Gaining status and prestige
  • Identification of potential new partners for further research
  • Attracting and motivating good scientists interested in entrepreneurial aspects or in new professional career opportunities
  • Contributing to the better recognition by public authorities of the socio-economic relevance of publicly funded research, potentially leading to more funding
  • Future exchanges of staff between the institution and the collaborator, or the hiring of new graduates from the research institution by industry.

Note: These benefits of collaborative research have been adapted from ‘The Responsible Partnering’ website in a document entitled "Voluntary guidelines for universities and other research institutions to improve their links with industry across Europe"

Research collaborations with organisations

Finding the right organisations to partner with in your research can be challenging, especially when the partner organisation is not an academic organisation and so can have quite a different culture.

When looking for organisations to partner with it is important to try and understand the position they hold among their peers. For example, an industrial partner may be part of a representative industry forum or association. Look at their agendas, industrial and political, as these can impact on how the resulting research outcomes are viewed and could create potential conflicts of interest.

Maybe the most difficult thing to manage in any partnership is that of equality. Both parties come from different backgrounds – intellectual and financial – but in terms of the project at hand they bring equal resources to the agreement. It is worth looking at this in detail.

Below are some examples of where two partners may engage. In reality, there are any number of variations on these combinations (and the complexity increases as the number of parties grows). For simplicity, some general principles/characteristics of these types of relationships are included. This list is by no means exhaustive or definitive. Relationships and collaborations spring from a range of motivations and resource commitments (too numerous to define here).

  • Two universities
    Characteristics: similar philosophy and culture. Pursuit of academic research and teaching, and creation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is acceptable. Collaboration does not necessarily require a commercial outcome. Potential for: joint appointments, joint infrastructure, collaborative funding bids, and joint publications.
  • Government and university
    Characteristics: university culture is one of research (basic through to applied), investigation, and pursuit of knowledge; government culture one of public accountability and bureaucracy. The government’s motivations are to procure/provide research/outcomes of benefit to government and, ultimately, to the taxpayer. University motivations are to pursue research interests, publish results, and gain funding to support research/education activities. Potential for: exchange visits, consultancy arrangements, funding from government, the credibility of academic experts is available to support government initiatives.
  • Industrial company and university
    Characteristics: university culture outlined above; not necessarily motivated by need to show a commercial/end-user benefit of the research undertaken. Industrial company will be driven by financial imperatives, and will have a desire for commercial outcomes (and their associated revenue). They will often have a large amount of cash that they can bring to a collaboration. Potential for industry/university staff exchanges, joint funding bids, commercialisation of basic/applied research, joint IP initiatives.
  • Community group and university
    Characteristics: university culture outlined above; community groups generally have less funding to bring to a collaboration. Potential for: ethically responsible use of research which benefits (potentially) underrepresented groups in our society, small research grants.
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