Houston expert: How to build a research consortium
Most principal investigators spend many hours laboring over proposals to fund their research programs – and for good reason. While competing for funding is the big business for researchers, some have opted to fund their programs in other ways, like building a research consortium.
The word "consortium" means a group of individuals, companies or governments that work together to achieve a specific purpose. Research consortia are generally partnerships between institutions and industry, where several companies in a specific industry sector will pay an annual fee to be a part of the university-led consortium. In return, the university will research solutions to critical problems identified by the company and provide critical research data.
Considering a consortium
Professor Paul Mann, a geologist at the University of Houston, has successfully run a consortium of energy companies since 2005, funding up to 20 graduate and undergraduate research students every year. He routinely brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in funding and has students working on solutions for geologic problems in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and the circum-Atlantic margins.
"Academic research consortia are a great way to fund research programs long term," said Mann. "Each company puts a certain amount of money in to fund a specific project and it creates a smoother cash flow to support students."
According to Mann, who runs the Conjugate Basins, Tectonics and Hydrocarbons Consortium, building a consortium requires a much different skill set than managing a taxpayer-supported, public grant through federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Since consortia are partnerships, in-person visits, relationship-building and trust with the sponsoring companies are key to building a successful one.
And instead of submitting routine technical reports, professors who have consortia visit companies, make presentations and meet one-on-one with their partners.
"We rely on companies for their continued funding, so we visit them in person as a way of building trust and transferring information. In meetings, we share what we are finding out, they share their knowledge and we both come away at a higher level of understanding," said Mann. He also transfers information to the company through summer internships or students who become full-time employees following their graduation from UH.
Mann also partners with researchers in the petroleum engineering program at University of Stavanger in Norway that is led by Professor Alejandro Escalona. Escalona completed his Ph.D. and postdoctoral study with the CBTH project at The University of Texas at Austin in 2006 and is now head of the Petroleum Geosciences section at Stavanger.
Find sponsors for your consortium
Building a consortium provides many opportunities for industry partners to get involved. A consortium also provides a flexible, project-based structure and allows partners to come to the table when they have a specific project that needs to be explored.
Other than joining as an official partner to support a project, companies can partner with academia to provide data sets for students to research.
"Data from industry are generally superior to anything that academia can collect because the industry has the resources and infrastructure to develop and support the highest level of subsurface imaging of the deep sedimentary basins that we use for our studies," said Mann.
"Students can work directly with critical industry data sets to accomplish the goals of the project. In return, the data provided increases its value through our interpretations and analysis which benefits the company that provided it."
Get other partners
Another way industry can contribute is through technical support from industry service companies that provide software for the consortium to use in their studies.
"Software helps accomplish complex analyses and provides students a chance to use cutting edge methods in their research projects," said Mann.
This investment transfers back to industry, he adds. As students graduate, they enter industry with strong experience working with the software. They then can promote the use of the software and train others in the company in its applications.
"Software evolves at a fast pace so keeping up requires significant effort," said Mann.
Build credibility with industry
To keep your consortia going, it must bring value to industry. This means providing successful applications to practical problems, such as exploring the subsurface in the search for hydrocarbons, according to Mann.
"We end up on applications – how can we use the science for practical benefits?" said Mann. "The students are exposed to the A-Z science value chain.'"
Performance benchmarked by publications builds credibility with companies, adds Mann, who requires doctoral students to publish three peer-reviewed articles on their dissertation research and master's students to publish one article on their thesis. He also involves students in site visits or Zoom meetings with companies to present the findings of the project. This gives students a chance to investigate summer internship and employment opportunities.
Since the CBTH project moved to UH a decade ago, CBTH-supported students have published 96 peer-reviewed, first-authored articles.
"Theses and dissertations tend to collect dust on shelves in libraries or languish in obscure digital archives, while published papers that are widely accessible online or at sites like Research Gate are at the forefront of the global dialogue of science," said Mann. "I tell the students that their published articles will be their legacy to the pool of human knowledge, so make sure you advance your work to as close to perfection as possible".
Build credibility for your consortium
According to Mann, students in the CBTH also regularly place in the annual poster competitions. Since 2013, they have won 138 awards.
"By the time our students graduate, they are masters of the 'graphical arts' that are based on a variety of software used to maximize the impact of their data and interpretations," said Mann. He said they also attain a high level of confidence, either presenting oral presentations in front of larger groups or poster presentations to smaller groups. The communication skills and confidence they gain serve them well, he said, throughout their careers.
These competitions also help to elevate the status of the UH Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department, which is currently ranked at number 54 in the U.S.A. by U.S. News and World Report.
Along with winning other competitions, Mann said these top performance activities really help establish credibility within the field and that will draw more interest in the consortium.
"Everyone in academia and industry values and respects peer-reviewed articles published in the top geoscience journals. With the electronic age the science dialogue has accelerated, so figuring out where the cutting edge is currently located can be a challenge," said Mann.
The Big Idea?
Building a consortium is a model that increases productivity both as a way to provide financial support and as a way to have a large group working on a single goal and to build a consistent cash flow to support a graduate research program.
Public grant funding tends to be on shorter time scales and that can make the multi-year funding for student projects more challenging, according to Mann. But once established and producing results, a research consortium is a solid model for supporting your students.
This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Lindsay Lewis, the author of this piece, is the executive director of communications for the UH Division of Research.