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Invest in co-investigators

Image: UC Davis College of Engineering [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Correcting the undervaluation of co-Is

Except for the small number of academic disciplines where the ‘lone scholar’ model is still dominant, most projects will require co-investigators. Overall, there are a lot more co-Is than principal investigators, and the most pressing research challenges of our age will require an interdisciplinary, team-oriented approach. That means co-Is. Lots of them.

Yet co-I roles continue to be undervalued by universities. I want to outline the mistaken thinking that underlies that fact and add some steps to correct it (talking mainly about co-Is who are at a different institution to the PI).

The need to lead

Universities will often fetishise ‘leading’ on major bids, and it’s true that there’s more prestige in this. In fact, the ideal position for any university responding to a major call is to keep as much of the research work and research funding for itself. The dream scenario is to have sufficient interdisciplinary expertise within its own walls to do everything. 

Very occasionally, this dream will come true. There are also valid project reasons for keeping everything in-house: reduced admin, existing working relationships, closer collaboration. Indeed, some funders prefer this. 

But it’s worth considering at the application stage what the odds are that the best possible team—or near enough—all happen to be employed at the same institution. Probably quite low, I’d say. In addition, forcing a disparate group of heavy-hitters from one institution into a bid can produce a Frankenstein’s monster that falls apart under scrutiny from reviewers.

The relative value of research income brought in as PI and as co-I should be, if everything is allocated fairly, identical. The PI and lead institution will probably get a larger share of the funding, but this will be because it makes sense for the project. And along with the prestige of leading comes the additional burden of shepherding the bid through its pre- and post-award stages.

One possible reason why many institutions underrate co-I funding is that it can be much harder to count in terms of internal benchmarking. The data sources aren’t always great on this, and sometimes the funding is funnelled through the lead institution in ways that make it hard to separate out. 

Yet co-Is on major bids, especially if they’re the lead for their institution, can be responsible for six- or seven-figure budgets—much larger than PIs on smaller projects.

If universities are to put greater value on co-Is, as they should, how can they position themselves to best fulfil that role where appropriate? 

Often when a call comes out there’s something of a scramble. The big beasts will gather intelligence on who else is planning a bid and will move quickly to secure the services of key collaborators at institutions that either won’t lead their own competitor bid or could be persuaded not to. 

By the time a call has come out, it’s too late to do much except horse-trade as best you can. It’s too late for a cold approach to a team you don’t know well, and it’s too late to be carrying out internal scoping exercises.

As such, there are a several steps that individuals, academic units and whole institutions could take to improve their visibility and make themselves a more attractive co-I partner well in advance of a call appearing.

Be clear about what you can offer. Don’t assume that others know about your strengths, especially when it comes to new investments, appointments and kit. Others are thinking about us—individually, institutionally—less often and paying less attention than we think.

Assess what you lack. Pair this up with information on which universities need what you have to offer, and you will have a neat list of potential collaborators. Talk to all of them. 

Make strategic use of visits, conferences and exchanges. When finances are tight, budgets for visiting speakers might seem an easy target for cuts, but it can be a false economy. That said, don’t just invite your old friends— invite potential new ones.

Handle staff mobility well. Keep in touch with colleagues who move on to other institutions, especially if you’d rather they’d stayed. 

Use existing infrastructure. Many geographical regions of the UK now have regional consortia, which can be good starting points for introductions, collaborative mechanisms, and perhaps even seed-corn funding.

Work top-down and bottom-up. Whether it’s an alliance with another institution as partner of choice, a research group or a single academic wanting to work more closely with colleagues at another institution, everyone at any level can start to build links that will make co-I roles more likely to come their way.

Adam Golberg is research development manager (charities) at the University of Nottingham

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight