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Module 2: Commencement and Collaboration – Putting Ideas Into Practice

3.1 Management roles and responsibilities

3.1.1 Small research projects

You would be aware that research projects are infinitely diverse, and the 'small-ness' of a project can be defined in any number of ways. The small research projects under consideration in this section could be identified as:

  • projects defined by an agreement with a single entity, and/or
  • projects with a small research team comprising 1–4 members (usually from the same institution), and/or
  • projects with a small budget (up to $100,000 per annum for an average of 1–3 years).

Examples of such projects could be research projects funded under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Projects scheme (funding is offered from 1–5 years for $20,000–$500,000 p.a.; average grant size announced in 2007 was $342,000), or the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Research grants scheme (average grant size announced in 2007 was $507,000). Small research projects may also refer to other grants, small consultancies, and contract research with a range of other providers.

As a research leader of a small research project you will need to consider the following core elements of good management for the effective management of your project:

  • Vision
    At the commencement of your project you will need to articulate your vision (both in terms of research direction and project management) for your stakeholders and your research team. Stakeholders could include funding agencies, industry partners, and other research collaborators. Your research team could be limited, and may only involve a research assistant, a PhD student, a postdoc, and/or a technician.
  • Leadership
    It is important to provide leadership, both in terms of research direction and project management, to ensure that project deliverables are met in a timely manner
  • Clarity of roles and responsibilities
    You will need to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the research team leader and other team members are well-defined, and that reporting lines are clear
  • Clear processes of decision-making
  • Effective planning and evaluation.

Module 7: Managing and Leading People in a Research Context offers a more in-depth analysis of the role of the research leader as a leader of people and their role in providing a vision to raise the performance of their staff.

The structure of management varies widely with the size of the research project and the type of research you are doing. In a small team with individual grants and very few students, the project will frequently be based on individual chief investigators (CIs) who are responsible for one grant and a few students and possibly postdocs. Since the CI is responsible for many parallel management aspects, you (as research leader) will require a diverse skill set (outlined above) to manage your project successfully.

In addition to your management of the operational aspects of the research and the project, you will find that additional supervision of the project, through a department and faculty/school/centre, is formally required. Financial aspects of your project will normally be controlled by business managers, located in university departments or at the faculty/school/centre. It is a good idea to discuss and seek advice about the management arrangements, including leadership and team roles, from a colleague you have identified as a mentor, or from your Head of Department.

3.1.2 Medium research projects (e.g. collaborative research projects)

Your involvement as a leader of a slightly larger, more managerially intensive, project can introduce complexity on a range of levels. As the number of stakeholders and collaborators necessary for you to deliver a successful research project increases, so too does the need for you to establish and communicate clear leadership and management structures.

At the commencement of your collaborative project, arrangements should be put in place to define responsibilities of CIs and collaborators (including industry partners). These arrangements will involve allocations of your project funding, establishment of a project management group, regular meetings, any process for changing funding allocations/project objectives, and dispute resolution.

There are some things you will need to consider before devising a collaborative research agreement. Your most important consideration is to establish what the collaboration is intended to achieve. This will guide your decisions around the management of your collaborative project.

When it comes to allocating roles within the project management group, you will need to take into consideration the specialisations and competencies of your collaborators. Some collaborators or industry partners may have more experience in handling business risk and liabilities, whereas research team members at the institution will tend to have deeper understanding of the research subject matter. Responsibilities and procedures should be defined according to expertise and competency.

Before the commencement of your collaborative project you should ensure the following arrangements are in place, at a bare minimum:

  • Agreements on intellectual property (IP)
  • The necessary sub-contracts have been negotiated and signed off by the relevant parties
  • Your project plan (covering milestones, etc.) has been accepted by your collaborators.
Collaborative research agreements

Part of the management of your collaborative research project will include the execution of an appropriate collaborative agreement. This is the legal article that will define the nature and extent of the collaborative relationship. You should seek the advice of your university legal office and/or research office to ascertain the procedures for developing collaborative agreements at your institution.

For your interest, recommended inclusions for collaborative agreements follow:
1. Definitions, identification of parties, objectives, and partner selection
2. Confidential information
3. Scope
4. Resources
5. Funding and pricing
6. Management and coordination
7. Reporting
8. Publications and confidentiality
9. Access rights to background IP
10. Ownership of project IP
11. Patents and other IP
12. Licences.

Note: Points to cover in a collaborative research agreement have been adapted from The Responsible Partnering website

The following section is optional. It relates to structures for large projects. If you are a member of a large research centre then it may be useful to compare what is suggested to what you observe. Otherwise move to the next topic.

3.1.3 Large research projects (e.g. Centres)

Once again, your leadership of a larger, multifaceted project introduces management complexity in terms of project scale and scope. Large research projects, such as Centres, will probably involve a large number of stakeholders and collaborators, a large budget, and increased accountability. The essence of good management is accountability. Clear management and management structures, in addition to your leadership skills, will play a large part in the success of your research project. The establishment of management mechanisms may be required before a large project, such as a Centre, can commence. Under some funding arrangements (e.g. DIISRTE Cooperative Research Centres) there is even a requirement for the Centre to be governed and managed by a company. The management structures most relevant for large projects include executive management groups, boards, committees, and advisory bodies.

These structures oversee implementation of:

  • Planning
    Planning is essential at the commencement of the research project, especially a large one. You will need to use your management structures to inform the development of the project plan (detailing how the project will be managed), project scope (documenting what the project will deliver), timelines and schedules (showing the timing of major project deliverables), and communications plan (identifying all stakeholders and communication channels). You will also need to work with your management structures to ensure processes are in place to manage risks, issues, and project commitments, and to decide on the key performance indicators/measures (KPIs/KPMs) that will enable you to evaluate and report on the activities of your project as time progresses.
  • Monitoring
    Terms of reference (TORs) should be developed for all project management structures. These should clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of the management structure, both in terms of monitoring and evaluating the project. As far as project monitoring goes, these TORs may include responsibilities for providing periodic scientific, financial, and progress reports to your board, enlisting sub-committees, coordinating meetings of executive management groups, and liaising with advisory bodies (to ensure that all aspects of your project are being managed and monitored in accordance with the project plan and the relevant agreements).
  • Evaluation
    Management structures will also play an important role in evaluating the activities and progress of your research project. Evaluation should be made against the documented key performance indicators that were decided on at the commencement of your project. Evaluation exercises can provide evidence required for reporting to external stakeholders and funding agencies, and can support a case for future funding. Evaluation can also provide feedback to enable your university to make strategic decisions about the future direction and support of your research project or Centre.

If you are research leader of a large team, such as a research centre, a formal management structure is necessary, and should be in place at the commencement of the project. This structure could form part of the contractual requirements for the centre's funding arrangements. The funding agency could also ask to approve the appointment of incumbents to the key management functions of the centre, prior to the commencement of the centre funding.

Some of the key management roles and their associated responsibilities are summarised below:

  • Research Director or Centre Director
    As the leader of your research project, this will probably be your role. You will be responsible for the overall conduct of the research project(s) and science strategy; you will also have a key role in reporting and directing any changes necessary to the direction of the research project. Other responsibilities may include recruitment, selection and training of staff, negotiation of agreements, compliance with reporting, and contractual requirements.
  • Chief Operations Officer (COO) or Chief Financial Officer
    This person, responsible for the management of the Centre, will generally control accounting and financial matters. Other responsibilities may include (in consultation with the Research/Centre Director) recruitment, selection and training of staff, negotiation of agreements, compliance with reporting, and contractual requirements.
  • Group leaders or managers who are responsible for individual teams
    These people will usually be scientific leaders of a particular research node of your larger project. They may be responsible for a small team of students, postdocs, technicians, and research assistants. These individuals will be expected to give input and participate in meetings of the scientific committee, executive group, and/or advisory board. These leaders/managers will need to be able to ensure that their team is conducting the research, and the project is being managed, in accordance with decisions made by the executive group and board. This can be a challenging task, keeping in mind that the various research nodes involved in a large project can be located at different physical locations (within Australia and overseas).
  • There can also be separate group managers, who are academics with a strong talent for management.

Not all senior academics in the project/centre necessarily have to be group managers; they can be directors with special responsibilities for certain aspects of the research.

A clearly defined executive – comprising the research/centre director, COO, CFO, and other managers and directors – will, with regular meetings and minuted outcomes, allow efficient planning and management. This system allows each member of the centre to follow and understand the decision-making process.

An advisory board is necessary, which should contain highly respected scientists in the field from Australia and overseas as well as end users of the research, especially in cases where commercialisation can be expected. The advisory board can also contain people experienced in outreach or with special skills for making the results of the research available to society.

You should consider investigating examples of how some large centres have successfully worked with boards that are modelled on company structures. However, keep in mind that centres in fundamental science or the humanities can benefit from advisory boards that concentrate on providing academic feedback. Again regular meetings with clear objectives are necessary in guiding the strategy of the project or centre and the work of its members.

You will need to consider such issues as:

  • Role of Director/Research Director/Operating Officers
    Having the right person in these roles is paramount to the success of your project. Your Research/Centre Director will have leadership skills, oversight of the research direction, and responsibility for compliance issues (e.g. ethical clearances and reporting) and general oversight of all aspects of the project.
  • Membership and role of advisory group and research committee
    You should check any relevant funding and/or collaborative agreements for specifications of membership and role requirements for boards and committees governing your project.
  • Relationship with host organisation
    You will need to consider how your large project (or centre) fits with the strategic objectives of your institution, as well as how it is managed within the institutional context (reporting lines, administration, funding mechanisms). You should seek the advice of your Dean/Director and/or Business Manager on the processes for management and administration of your project within the institutional context.
  • Relationship with partner organisations
    As the leader of a large project, you will need to have appropriate management structures and procedures in place that clearly define the nature and terms of the relationship of your research team, project, and university with all partner organisations (including other Australian universities, industry partners, funding agencies, and overseas collaborators). The roles and responsibilities of the parties involved in these relationships are usually formalised in funding and/or collaborative agreements that define how funding will be allocated and distributed, management of the project, and the use and commercialisation of any IP.
  • Develop mechanisms to enable the centre to operate as independently as possible within the host organisation(s) structure
    The nature of these large projects is such that, while one university will often be named as the 'lead' or 'administering' institution, the entity (e.g. research project, centre, collaboration) receiving the funding is a collaborative and multi-institutional venture. The research project/centre has often been given funding on the basis of the potential benefits to be derived from the collaboration. This new entity (research project, centre, collaboration) must be publicly presented in order that pre-eminence is not given to individual universities, but rather that the public image and benefits of the collaborative venture are promoted. You are also able to create this image virtually by ensuring that your project/centre website presents a truly collaborative effort and is representative of all interests. It is also important for you to consider any special requirements of the funding agency for management of your project or centre, e.g. CRCs are required to operate as a company, separate from the legal entity of your university.
  • Reporting arrangements
    As the project leader you will need to ensure compliance with the reporting requirements of funding agencies, collaborators, industry partners, and your university.
  • Centre financial and HR management
    These tasks will most likely be the responsibility of your Chief Operating Officer or Chief Financial Officer. All processes surrounding the financial and HR management of your research project (or centre) should be undertaken in line with your university's accepted finance and HR procedures. You should discuss your university's requirement and processes with your Dean/Director, or seek the advice of your Finance and Human Resources Office.
  • Project plan (including business and strategic planning, project goals, research targets, milestones, timelines)
    Your research plan must incorporate plans to deal with the management of the research (targets, milestones, timelines); finances; the research team; and stakeholders/ collaborators. A key aspect of this planning is to define how you will be able to identify the achievement of objectives and the provision of performance measures (e.g. KPIs, KPMs) against which project monitoring and evaluation can take place.
  • Agreements
    You will be responsible for ensuring that the appropriate agreements are in place, both with the relevant funding agencies (e.g. the Centre Agreement), and with your collaborating organisations (e.g. the Collaborative Agreement). Examples of centre agreements can be found under the heading "Pursuing the topic further" at the bottom of the page for Topic 3, whereas an outline of Collaborative Agreement requirements are found above under heading 3.1.2 "Medium research projects". Your university research office and/or legal office can give you guidance on what is required for your particular research project.


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