Round 19 near completion, Round 20 bids developing
Dr Tony Peacock FTSE
The 19th selection round of Cooperative Research Centres is nearing completion, with an announcement on the successful CRCs expected in the next fortnight. Six bids were interviewed by the CRC Advisory Committee over 7 & 8 February, with two, three or four set to be funded. CRCA understands that the final number is likely to be at the upper end of expectations (seven CRCs finish 30 June this year).
Feedback from the interviews was positive, with all applicants reporting that they felt they had received a good hearing. Interviews now only last one hour, but everyone seems satisfied it is enough time to distinguish between bids. CRCA conducted mock interviews for all of this year’s candidates and the quality of bids was extremely high. Differentiating factors included:
- The level of industry support for the bid, as evidenced by the amount of money industry is putting in and by the way industry “embraces” the bid. There tends to be a bit of distinction when industry people are aware of, and enthusiastic about, the bid as a whole, compared with just the direct projects they might be involved in. This tends to give a feel for whether the CRC will be more than the sum of its parts.
- Management and governance arrangements. Few, if any bids, plan for a ramping up period. So if they are named in March, they have to get a series of very complex agreements in place as well as staffing and be up and running in less than four months. CRCs manage through influencing rather than direct control, so the Advisory Committee needs to have confidence that a bidder can turn into a highly effective company – quickly.
- Quality of the research and its pathway to impact. The shorter interview process means that the Advisory Committee does not spend as much time as in the past examining the quality of the research and the expertise of the researchers. But it would be a mistake to assume the committee is not paying attention to quality. Bids generally cover off on quality of the research in the written material and perhaps their presentation. Several of this year’s applicants report they were asked to provide evidence of the scientific quality of their team.
The 20th selection round is not yet officially open, and may not be for several months. It looks like a large number of applications are likely to be submitted, judging from those in active development already. Fourteen bids are already listed on the CRC Association’s website and CRCA is aware of likely further bids in Bioprospecting, Anti-Microbial Resistance and an additional mining industry bid. It would be expected that shortlisted Round 19 bids that do not get funding would seriously consider a Round 20 bid, so we could easily see 20 bids in the next round. There is a degree of self selection as industry decides whether the direction or timing is right, and of course there may be new bids developed between now and the closing date for the funding round.
There are a few developments worth noting about CRC bid development these days. Firstly, the Industry Growth Centres are playing a very important role in bids. The role they play varies significantly from initiating bids where they see knowledge gaps in their decade plans to helping bids to identify participants to full participation in the CRC as a member. For new bidders, this development means you should talk to the Growth Centres early and often.
Secondly, research organisations are keener than ever to participate in CRCs and are putting forward significant cash, in-kind and top personnel to gain a place. The government changes to the university block grant system is no doubt a significant factor, but all research organisations are seeking to be part of high impact R&D. CRCA advocated for years for the block grant changes and they seem to be having the desired impact. Bidders should be careful not to allow research organisation cash and in-kind to replace industry contributions. In a competitive environment, the industry contribution is going to remain a major factor in whether a bid is shortlisted and subsequently funded. Most of this year’s applicants received feedback at shortlisting that greater industry contributions would improve their bids and all responded positively. For Round 20 bidders, the pressure will be on to secure those contributions before the shortlisting stage.