Getting to grips with research contracts

By Rob Johnson

Back in 2013, I ran a benchmarking exercise for 20 research-intensive universities in the UK, looking at how they handled contracts for research and research-related activities. The driver for the exercise was the rapid growth in the volume and complexity of research contracts managed by UK higher education institutions (HEIs). This was leading to increasing pressure on university support offices and resulting in some very disgruntled academic staff and collaborative partners. Ultimately, if the parties to a research project cannot get a contract in place within a reasonable timeframe, promising initiatives can be stifled at birth, and funding opportunities can be lost.

The report from the study validated these concerns, showing that research support teams were facing a double-whammy of contracts volumes growing at 8% per year (vs. only 3% growth in research income), whilst simultaneously growing ever more complex. The benchmarking data and recommendations arising from our work helped the participating institutions:

  • make the case for more resource;
  • adopt good practice, such as seeking regular feedback on service quality from academic staff;
  • improve systems and management information; and
  • streamline processes.

As one Research Director explained to me only a few weeks ago: ‘Your benchmarking data was so useful in demonstrating to senior colleagues here how risk averse and bureaucratic we were compared to others, for which I am still very grateful!’

Problem solved?

We revisited the topic of research contracts last year in our report for HEFCE on “Effective Practice in Knowledge Exchange”, which helped inform the McMillan report on technology transfer.  This demonstrated that a number of courses, templates, tools and other reference materials are available to help institutions manage their contracts, particularly from ARMA and PraxisUnico. The release of an updated Lambert toolkit and revised Brunswick agreements (for institutional collaborations) later in 2016 have improved things further.

Yet my discussions with institutions in the recent past confirm that the challenges of managing contracts haven’t gone away. Volumes are still rising, and contracts are still getting more complex, and if anything the rate of change has only increased since 2013 (see Figure below).

Institutional views on contract complexity (2013).

Meanwhile, recruiting and retaining staff who combine an understanding of research with the requisite legal nous is never easy, and systems and processes still fall short. Whenever we undertake a review of a research and enterprise support function, contracts management is always high on the list of complaints from researchers.

Looking ahead, changes in the UK research landscape mean life isn’t about to get any simpler either. The formation of UK Research & Innovation, the launch of the Industrial Strategy and the Global Challenges Research Fund and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will all bring new forms of agreement in their wake.  Plus, there is the looming threat of Brexit and its implications for UK participation in Horizon 2020 and successor EU Framework Programmes. Meanwhile, growing unease over the tuition fees regime could lead to institutions face a real-terms funding squeeze going forward. The upshot is that many will be looking to make efficiencies across the board, and research support and contracts teams will be no exception.

A new benchmarking exercise

In view of all this, we believe the time is ripe to revisit the topic of research contracts and to run a new benchmarking exercise in early 2018. This project will build on the 2013 exercise and seek to:

  • generate a broader set of comparators, by opening up the exercise to all research-active HEIs; and
  • help institutions respond to ongoing and new challenges in the research contracts landscape.

As in 2013, the aim will be to give participating institutions robust data showing how their contracts functions compare to those at peer institutions in terms of resource levels, costs and efficiency. However, we will also provide insights into institutional structures and processes which can lead to lasting improvements.

Furthermore, we are partnering with our associate Mark Hochman in Australia to extend the exercise to HEIs in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, given the similarities in the legal environment and structure of the HE sector between these countries and the United Kingdom.

Keen to learn more?

We are now in the early stages of scoping the new benchmarking exercise, to make sure that it meets the needs of institutions. Our dedicated project webpage provides further details, and will be used to share progress updates as the project proceeds. Please do visit the page to find out more and register your interest to participate in the benchmarking exercise.

Alternatively, if you’d like to know more, or have any questions about the project, please feel free to contact me (for UK institutions) or Mark Hochman (for Australasian institutions) directly.