An Investigation of the Development and Management of University Research Institutes

By Philbin, Simon P. | Journal of Research Administration, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

An Investigation of the Development and Management of University Research Institutes


Philbin, Simon P., Journal of Research Administration


Introduction

Historically, much academic work has been organized according to traditional subject areas, such as geography, business management, materials science, aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, and so on. Whilst a university's ability to provide a firm education and scholarship in these fundamental academic areas remains essential, not least in the sciences to ensure there is adequate coverage of the core underpinning scientific subjects (namely mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology), there is nevertheless an increasing focus on multidisciplinary academic work. Multidisciplinary approaches offer the potential to bring together different perspectives to address otherwise intractable problems (Haythornthwaite, 2006), and this is especially pertinent to academic areas that have developed in recent years and in parallel with modern technological advancements. Such multidisciplinary areas could include, for example, nanoscience and nanotechnology, forensics and criminal science, biomedical engineering, environmental science and climate change studies, systems engineering, and cybernetics. Correspondingly and over the last couple of decades there has been a proliferation of multidisciplinary institutes and research centres created at universities and other organizations such as hospitals to focus on these emerging areas of research. In this context, complex scientific, technological and engineering research problems increasingly require cooperative and collaborative efforts, as distinct from approaches in the past that involved highly individualised studies by scientists. Moreover, multidisciplinary research that crosses traditional academic boundaries and that can be governed by an implicit need for collaborative working has been described by Karlsson et al. (2008) as an important enabler of the learning process. This work emphasized the importance of open and honest communication within the collaborative environment, and that in collaborative learning the relationship between collaborators can be just as important as the actual knowledge generated.

In accordance with the emergence of multidisciplinary thinking at universities, there has been a greater availability of research funding for multidisciplinary research. This has provided universities with an external and financial stimulus to increase the level of collaboration among their departments (Harris, 2010) and specifically to develop and establish multidisciplinary institutes and research centres to deliver research and training capabilities to meet such a need. This interest spans the social sciences, such as geography (Bishop, 2009), as well as the physical and life sciences. In the latter case and as an illustrative point, there has, for example, been for a number of years substantial funding available for research on synchrotrons (Thompson, 2007), such as studies involving neutron scattering as a technique to probe the structure of condensed matter on a molecular scale. Synchrotrons are used to investigate a range of materials at the microstructure level, as well as biological systems, nanomaterials, and composite materials; these research endeavours inevitably require multidisciplinary efforts involving specialists from different areas.

This paper includes a literature review on the management of multidisciplinary research institutes, which will focus on identifying some of the challenges and issues associated with organizing academic work according to such structures. A case study investigation of a research institute located in the United Kingdom will allow the formulation of a systems view of institute management. Further analysis will include examination of the international dimensions of the case study. Concluding remarks will include recommendations for the management of university research institutes, as well as possible areas for further investigation. Within this article, institutes will be regarded as being broadly equivalent to research centres, although a range of organizational forms can be meant by either term. …

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