The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) held a meeting of directors and coordinators of Engineering Programmes Network awards and as a result this guide has been produced.
The information is offered on an advice only basis to investigators and coordinators that are either in the process of developing an Engineering Programmes Network proposal, or have established a network activity. This information does not constitute part of the EPSRC peer review process when assessing network proposals.
There is general advice in three areas that are perceived by EPSRC as important stages in the development and evolution of a successful network.
Creating a network
A proposed network should have clearly defined and testable objectives and a well defined purpose which is visible beyond its membership. This purpose may be technical, non-technical, task specific or driven by a user need. The role of the network might be to nurture research ideas between its members and to facilitate the transfer of knowledge to a broader community.
A successful network will need to have an identified active core membership representing a critical mass (in terms of the proportion of the research community) with complementary skills. Each core member should have defined objectives and roles within the network.
In order to establish a network, an investment in terms of both time and resource will be required. Any network proposer should realise what they are letting themselves into!
An enthusiastic administrator or coordinator was considered to be a critical success factor as a dynamic and motivational individual would “drive” the network and make things happen. The coordinator may be a Principal Investigator.
There might be a turnover in network membership as the scope of the network evolves or members might decide to leave. This change will need to be planned for or managed in order to maintain a collective level of expertise within the network.
Networks should provide a forum for debate and should encourage broad, wide ranging, innovative thinking. Provocative meeting agendas may help to encourage debate.
Any proposed network bid should show an awareness of other existing network activities, for example UK, EU or international. Proposed networks should compliment any existing activity and demonstrate real ‘added value’.
Network members should consider ways of working, network operation, network management and network ownership at an early point in the life of the network. Resources will play an increasingly important role as a Network evolves and grows.
Mechanisms should be defined for monitoring the impartiality and neutrality of any network management team to ensure that fair representation of the network membership is achieved.
Maintaining a network activity
Network members should forward plan activities and events and think long term. It takes 12 to 18 months to organise a successful event.
Communication will be important and the Network should consider establishing a website. A diversity of Network communication activity should, however, be employed for example, holding workshops and conferences, producing newsletters, use of Learned Societies and Trade Associations publications.
Workshops and conferences provide useful face-to-face meetings that may prove to be invaluable and more effective than electronic communications alone.
Maintaining a website will be time-consuming but will provide a “shop window” for the network. It may also serve as a useful way of recruiting new members. Investigate the technological limitations of your network members as not all members may have access to email or internet and be able to partake in virtual discussions.
The development of a mailing list will be time consuming but may have real benefit.
Once the core membership has been established, the Network should be widened to avoid it becoming a “closed shop”.
Careful consideration should be given to the formation of sub-groups within a Network. It may be helpful to use a sub-group to focus attention on a specific issue of interest to the Network. Care should be taken to avoid letting Network members from using sub-groups as a forum for self-interest discussion rather than discussion with the rest of the membership.
Charging a membership fee will generate commitment to the Network. A differential academic or industrial membership scale may work in some cases. Fees could also come from attendance at workshops or sponsorship from a user community.
If the Network wishes to continue for any length of time it must make itself indispensable.
Lack of industry continuity and involvement may be a problem. Turn over in membership must be managed to maintain a Network activity.
Identify and demonstrate benefits and rewards for all Network members in order to maintain member interest and input.
Sustaining a network
Early planning for the future of the network is essential.
Running a network may help to enhance the standing of a young researcher within a community.
Decide what will happen to your Network at the end of the EPSRC grant early on and manage the transition. In other words, will the network ramp-up, ramp-down, change direction or stop? Options include the establishment of a society, club or company to run a focused network activity or evolution into a broader Network to make the Network more sustainable.
Promote involvement of the network to interested parties – you too can influence the EPSRC and future research priorities.
Establish a brand name and hence a unique network identity.
The network should consider the role that it can play in education and training by offering learning and development opportunities in the spirit of or in line with the Investors in People (IiP) standard.