New tool aims to help research managers with funding

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Rebecca Perchard reports on a project that aims to give research managers more insight into funding patterns

Finding and reporting information on grant funding and awards is a complex business for research managers. Many, particularly those working in smaller institutions, rely on a variety of different information sources such as spreadsheets and internal databases to find what they need. However, this process is time-consuming, inward-looking and it doesn’t give them the strategic information they need to support the efficient generation of external research funding.

Research managers need to know, for example, how they can identify potential collaborators who can help them to maximise their chances of securing research funding. They also need to know how to report effectively on research funding activity to a range of internal and external audiences and how to measure their institution’s performance in securing research funding compared with competitors.

Alicen Nickson, deputy director, research support and development at Brunel University, UK, has detailed experience of managing a funding portfolio and of where research managers need tools to help them do things better. She said: ‘My team collates a range of information on our research funding portfolio, and we put it into an internal database from which we generate reports for numerous internal and external stakeholders. Like any other research office, we maintain fairly comprehensive records on all our grant proposals and awards, but this doesn’t tell us how our performance compares to others.’

She continued: ‘Perceptions of success, and the consequent targeting of resources, might alter if we could put our own performance in context. It would be really helpful to know where research funding is actually going, when we are not winning it ourselves, and to know which researchers and groups are receiving most funding under a particular funding scheme or theme. Intelligence like that can help us to identify opportunities for developing mutually beneficial collaborations.’

It is already possible to find out more about other organisations’ funding successes through systems such as the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Grants on the Web tool, but Nickson points out that keeping up with a variety of resources such as this is resource-hungry and many teams just can’t keep up with it all.

Research Councils UK’s (RCUK’s) Gateway to Research (GtR) is an important step forward. The gateway contains data on research grants and outcomes held by the UK’s seven Research Councils, and it is designed to help businesses and other interested partners identify potentially fruitful partnerships with universities and to maximise the impact of publicly-funded research. Its main focus is on innovation-intensive small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), so in itself it is not geared to the needs of research managers. They want simple tools that sort and analyse available data in a timely way, that help them meet often last-minute deadlines, and that allow them to feel confident of the accuracy and provenance of what they see.

The Jisc-led Gateway for Higher Education (G4HE) project aims to address this need. The G4HE team, in which Cottage Labs is a project partner, is working in consultation with the research management community, via a group of volunteers from the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA), to build tools that could help research managers and administrators in universities get access to the publicly-available data in GtR in a way that is most useful for them. The G4HE project team is also working with RCUK to recommend useful improvements to the exchange of data and information between research organisations and the UK’s Research Councils.

Identifying collaborators

Using G4HE, institutions can see whom they are already collaborating with, and how much funding each project was awarded. This information can help them identify which collaborations are generating the most funding and should be cultivated. In addition, it is possible to see how much funding was awarded to an institution’s projects compared with their competitors across the same time period, an insight that can point managers to concentrate their effort on building the most profitable new relationships for the future. The tools also offer recommendations for potential collaborations based on project, people and keyword searches.

Reporting research funding activity to internal and external audiences

The ARMA volunteers said that it was important to be able to incorporate the information in G4HE into their own institutional reports easily. We have used that insight to create tools that can provide an at-a-glance headline report that details top collaborations in both tabular and graph formats. Institutions can also generate detailed tables showing key information on that collaboration (such as collaborator, funding awarded and principal investigator) The detailed reports are downloadable as .csv files, which can be easily imported into Excel or elsewhere.

Benchmarking funding performance

G4HE’s benchmarking report allows institutions to compare themselves with other institutions that they can select themselves, and to create a report on the number of projects started by their own and competitors’ institutions during a selected time period. It is also possible to view the amount of funding awarded to projects started by an institution within a given time period in comparison to the amount awarded to other institutions. This may help with planning in terms of knowing which projects and subject areas are performing well and which are not generating much funding, and also in suggesting possible future collaborations.

Over the last year, the G4HE project has been investigating ways in which the data in GtR can help address some of the challenges faced by research managers and administrators in the course of their work. With the project now approaching its end, feedback on the beta version of its open-source tools is proving positive, and we have turned our attention to exploring sustainability options to allow us to make the tools available for use in the long term by the research information community.

Rebecca Perchard is communications co-ordinator at Cottage Labs