Running a Research Center
It takes bravery, creativity and a plan. Long days and constant pressure. It takes a lot to launch a successful business. The same is true for starting and managing an effective research center.
A research center may not be about the bottom line, but it still has to stand out from its competitors. It still has to collaborate with colleagues in different fields and communicate with stakeholders.
Researchers from around the country offered a window into how they made the leap from running a lab to running a successful research center.
Here’s what makes them tick.
Get Creative With Your Research Center
As with any business, finding a small corner of the market can be profitable. Case in point: The Center for Research on Electronic Commerce (CREC) at The University of Texas at Austin.
“My colleagues and I always carved out a niche for ourselves and developed creative ways to answer questions and address problems,” said center director Andrew Whinston, an economist and computer scientist at UT-Austin.
Established in 1988, housed at UT’s McCombs School of Business, the center is recognized as a leader in communications infrastructure. It offers a unique blend of economics and computer science for uncovering new ideas. It aims to help improve electronic commerce processes, business productivity, customer satisfaction and market efficiency.
One of CREC’s notable endeavors is the Cybersecurity Rating Project. The project helps organizations combat the significant challenges associated with spam, phishing and malicious software. At first sight, it seems this work mainly falls into the realm of information systems research, but it’s broader than that.
“Whether it be cybersecurity or e-commerce, it is not just about computer science,” said Whinston. “Regarding improving e-commerce safety and processes, we study game theory, the science of strategy.”
Game theory is a branch of mathematics focused on strategies for dealing with competitive situations in which one participant’s decision-making depends on what other participants do.
You leave a data trail behind whenever you place something in an online shopping cart. In e-commerce, that means retailers can gather that data to develop ever-changing price structures to maximize profits. The growth of online shopping since CREC’s inception 30 years ago illustrates how society has changed. Whinston said CREC had to evolve along with changes in economics, technology and how people and companies conduct business online. That forward thinking has allowed CREC to secure consistent funding from the National Science Foundation to lay the foundation for the center’s innovation in online marketing, digital currency and the internet of things.
Collaborate. And Do it Well.
Finding a sweet spot in the research market is critical. Today’s research centers also require collaboration across disciplines, and often, across institutions.
The Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES) at the University of Houston has conducted substantial research focused on education, children and how they learn since 2001. Directed by David Francis, professor of psychology at UH, TIMES’ mission is to improve the behavioral, psychological, educational and developmental outcomes of children and adults through leading-edge quantitative and qualitative research methods. And it has done that, Francis said, by involving researchers with diverse skill sets, expertise and disciplines.
The center grew from a partnership between Francis and Jack Fletcher and Barbara Foreman. Both were at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston when they partnered. “The three of us had worked together on various education and reading problem prevention projects for over a decade, and we all had expertise in different areas,” Francis said. “Barbara was a content and literacy instructional expert, Jack was the disability expert, and I brought psychometrics and statistics to the table.”
How Collaboration Helped TIMES
Over the years, their partnership evolved into TIMES. This led to multi-million dollar grant awards and contributed to shifts in the way English language learners are taught to read. It also led to new interventions for children with reading difficulties and learning disabilities. One series of studies, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, came about after then-Governor George W. Bush raised questions about how best to support English language learners in school.
“Back in the ’90s there was a movement in California and Arizona’s education systems to be English only. At the time, Gov. George Bush reached out to the science community to determine if Texas, being a bilingual state, should enact legislation to be English only as well,” said Francis. “(Former) Gov. Bush wanted to ensure English learners in Texas thrived in school, not just survived.”
Working with colleagues at UH, UT-Houston, UT-Austin and California State University at Long Beach, UH was awarded $17 million to conduct research for the Bilingual Program Project, with Francis as principal investigator. More projects dealing with English Language Learners followed, including collaborations with Harvard University and the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C.
Sharing is Caring
During a conversation with Francis, a common theme became apparent. TIMES’ success and sustainability is attributed to partnerships with researchers with a variety of skills and interests. “Don’t be afraid to go outside of your discipline or own institution,” he said. “Gather the greatest expertise you can for projects, because the best ideas win the largest grant awards and produce the most impactful research.”
Francis also believes sharing space and even equipment is critical for more meaningful collaboration, better projects and bigger grant funding.
Years of experience has allowed TIMES to make this interdisciplinary collaboration look easy. However, Francis acknowledges there are challenges and risks in working across disciplines. Each researcher has to connect to the greater good.
“Everyone must align, coordinate and visualize how individual projects integrate with a larger research program,” he said. “There’s only so much funding available in a program project or center grant, and each investigator has to compromise somewhat on their individual project for the program to succeed.”
The common thread in all this work is collaboration. “Cross-discipline research groups have to see the vision, understand it, have a sense of what’s needed in the field and distill it down into operational ideas that are executable,” Francis said. “We strive to make a great impact to mankind and intellectually contribute to society.”
Promote Your Work
Collaboration is key at the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) at Virginia Tech, too. But getting out the word about the findings from those collaborations matters, as well.
Institute scholars tackle a wide array of topics. From global extremism and hate speech to adolescent substance abuse. These topics are bound by ISCE’s focus on social science and the humanities. But institute director Karen Roberto said sharing the results of that work is important, too. It helps community leaders and decision-makers work toward ways to improve society.
“We encourage the faculty not only to publish their research but to tell their story through our communication channels such our website and the weekly ISCE news flash,” she said.
Engaging in public forums seems like a natural move for researchers who deal with topics at the forefront of today’s world. Researchers in other fields are discovering the value of sharing their work with the public via online newsletters, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, too. (Academics also have begun using social media to collect research data. A few have discovered the risks, as well as the rewards, of using social media. But that’s another story.)
ISCE brings together faculty from across Virginia Tech, incorporating social and behavioral sciences and the humanities. “Our goal is to support faculty members in establishing their research agendas and strong relationships that result in interdisciplinary teams of faculty working together long-term,” Roberto said. That ranges from helping younger faculty connect with more experienced researchers to help navigate the grant process.
Whether they pursue new types of collaborations or new ways of reporting scientific discoveries, academic researchers are drawing upon traditional business tools to ensure the success of these larger research enterprises. Running a center or institute, they have discovered, is different from managing your own work.
And that’s OK.
“We’re risk takers,” Whinston said of his colleagues. “We look toward the future. The world changes every day.”