Room to think

March 31, 1995

Paul Fuller urges universities to put research space management into their strategic plan. Whether universities are looking to establish a research base or searching for ways to develop their research activity, space to do the job is critical to determining success.

When looking at university research it is tempting to split them into "old" and "new". Individual institutions may be either research or teaching dominated, but they have two problems in common: how to acquire new research space and how existing space can be allocated.

Science-based subjects typically require more space than humanities, which in turn require less direct space but place a greater demand on central resources, in particular the library. But even these simple observations hide enormous diversity. Figures below illustrate the range of space allocated to three specific research areas common to three comparable institutions (see graph). Each area has a high research assessment excerise rating and comparable numbers of researchers.

The figures indicate that research space needs are a function not only of the academic area but also of such factors as the manner in which research is carried out. Certain elements of engineering research for example, traditionally requiring extensive space for heavy machinery, can now be modelled on computer, requiring less space but delivering similar research results.

The use of shared research facilities should be considered as a possible solution to space shortage. Such generic space can be developed either at an institutional level or by grouping together families of research activity with common space and facility requirements, eg engineering. The benefit of multi-purpose specialist space is that it allows greater flexibility in reacting to changes in research portfolios and should prevent the mothballing of highly specialised space between projects. Historically there has been significant cross-over of research into teaching space, for example when laboratories are not being used. However, with teaching space being used with greater and greater intensity this opportunity is disappearing.

There is a risk that research strategy could be driven in part by what space is available - the institution will undertake only research which has limited or no space requirements, or for which alternative sources of funding to purchase additional space can be found.

It cannot be assumed that research can be expanded within existing available space. Our experience with private sector research organisations suggests that some institutions are already operating close to international norms on space allocation.

In 1995/96 it is estimated that more than Pounds 2 billion will be spent on research in higher education. Central government is the primary provider of research funding in the United Kingdom, either by direct grant or through the funding and research councils. According to the latest funding allocations, Government will provide approximately 66 per cent of total research income during the 1995/96 academic year.

These central sources of funding make limited provision for research space needs. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's formula for capital funding includes an allowance for postgraduate research students. However, the research councils provide no funding for space - in fact such expenditure is explicitly excluded.

Given such limited scope for grant-supported new build, institutions will need to turn to alternative fund sources including industrial sponsorship, industrial joint ventures, shared facilities either with industry or other research institutions, and commercial debt. This reinforces the importance of integrating research space planning into overall strategic planning. Effective management of resources is essential to ensure future space demands are met. It is Touche Ross's belief that effective research space management requires an approach which is explicit and consistently applied across the institution and is designed to facilitate the delivery of the institutional strategy.

There are several key principles for such an approach. Users of research space in institutions need to recognise that space is a scarce and expensive resource in the same manner as staff or equipment - it has a real cost and hence a mechanism needs to be found which will encourage effective management by users.

One approach, which unfortunately can lead to unacceptable levels of bureaucracy, is to charge individuals or departments for the space allocated to them. An alternative is to introduce a bidding and review process that achieves similar results without the detailed book-keeping.

If space needs assessment and allocation is to be explicit then a set of criteria needs to be developed that will allow the analysis and prioritisation of bids for space within the context of the institution's overall strategy.

The criteria used for assessment should flow directly from the institution's strategic plan and support the delivery of research objectives. The approach must be seen to be equitable.

Users are unlikely to respond positively unless the management process is plainly fair, transparent and defensible. There is little point in devising so complex a system that users do not understand the esoteric algorithms which produce the answers and for which they will then be held accountable.

For the same reasons the links between the model and delivery of the institution's research objectives should be easily identifiable. Clear demonstration of these links will help to validate the use of such a model for academic staff.

Research work is frequently contract based and of limited duration. Any approach adopted for managing research space therefore needs to recognise these time-limitations on space and be able to pull back vacated space to some central point and reallocate.

The acceptance of space as a short-term commodity will help to dissuade the hoarding of large pieces of equipment with limited future use - a problem frequently encountered in science and engineering departments. The approach must be enforceable, deliverable and above all has to induce the desired behaviour.

It should enable management to monitor research space demand and ensure the delivery of the desired results. Some would say that it is like searching for a holy grail to try to find a solution that truly addresses each of these maxims. But the point is that no system - no matter how complex or simple - should be viewed as deterministic or its results as absolute. Probably the most important contribution such a model will make to an institution's management of research space will be the informed debate that it engenders. This should then lead to an improvement in the quality of decision making.

Paul Fuller is a group partner with Touche Ross Management Consultants.

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