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Why are we waiting?


Factors behind research contract hold-ups

Among the various photos rotating as desktop wallpaper on my work PC is a screenshot from the television show The Good Place. The caption says: “Okay, shouldn’t take long. Between an hour and, um, 11 months.” As a contracts manager, the statement resonates. People always ask me how long it will take to finalise a contract and my answer is usually just as vague and unhelpful.

Why won’t I give a definitive answer? What is the difference between a contract that takes an hour and one that takes 11 months, or longer? And what can you, dear frustrated researcher, do to speed things up? I’ll try and answer those questions here.

Information is key

First question: do I and my counterpart at the other organisation have the information that we need to draft or review a contract? This might seem like a basic question, but we often stumble at this first hurdle.

I don’t just mean have you told me the project title, dates and budget? I mean what is the project about, what are its aims and objectives? What is the relationship between us and the other parties? A contract does not exist in a vacuum, it is there to reflect a piece of work and describe a relationship.

Some of the most difficult and protracted contract negotiations I have are when the lawyer or contracts manager for a commercial party fundamentally misunderstands this relationship. They may have either sent me their model, ‘one-size-fits-all’ agreement or reviewed the contract that I sent them with their own standard terms of business in mind, which are almost certainly not designed for research projects. To make those contracts work, it takes a lot of time and effort.

A company’s model agreement may deny or severely restrict the right to publish, for example, often because the company has a completely different understanding of the meaning of “publication”. People working in universities know exactly what we mean when we say this, but it can set alarm bells ringing in the corporate mind. So if you want to publish, the contract should not be the first time company colleagues learn of this. Don’t assume they will understand your priorities as an academic.

External forces

But enough about you. What about me? Let’s assume that you have given me all the information I could possibly need. Why am I still holding your project hostage?

The thing about contracts is that they will always involve more than one party. In my experience that’s up to around 10 people I have to get to respond to me and 10 opinions I have to consider. All it takes is for one person not to respond and the contract will be delayed. 

And there’s nothing I can do about it beyond sending increasingly frustrated and desperate emails.

Many academics believe that their organisation is uniquely bad at sorting out contracts (I know, I’ve seen the emails). I’m here to tell you that this is not the case. We are all slow. And it’s not just universities. Companies also have their own layers of bureaucracy that make them a lot less agile than we might imagine.

And then there is the question of workload. Like academics, professional services staff in universities are over-stretched and under-resourced. During the years I worked in universities, I became adept at starting emails with “thank you for your patience” or “owing to workload, it will be X amount of time before I’m able to review this”. It’s just as frustrating for me as for the academics I work with, though I’ve been lucky to have extremely understanding colleagues.

False economy

Even when everyone is responsive, contracts generally do involve a certain amount of back-and-forth. I wouldn’t be good at my job if I accepted everything that was sent to me just for the sake of expediency.

Even something as simple as spotting a missing element in a contract will take time to correct, but it’s nearly always the case that if we don’t fix it now, we’ll have to fix it once the contract is up and running, at which point it will likely have become a pressing issue. In such instances, getting the contract signed as quickly as possible is a false economy.

So I hope any academics irritated by the ongoing delay in getting their partnership contract finalised will understand why a certain message from me is forever recorded in one university’s project management system. It was in response to a principal investigator and finance team as they kept asking what was happening with the contract. “I anticipate it will be signed in the next week or so,” I kept saying. But eventually, like Papa Smurf realising he has to tell the truth after being repeatedly asked whether the journey is much further, there came one final “is it much longer now?” until I had to reply “Yes, it is!” 

Stephanie Harris is senior contracts manager at the National Institute for Health and Care Research. She writes here in a personal capacity

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