Spending research grants wisely

Getting the most from your research grant with the help of the procurement department

June 26, 2008

When the battle to obtain research funding has been won, the challenge of spending the money most effectively has just begun. One of the biggest mistakes researchers make is to think they can do it all on their own, says Jenny Bushrod, chair of the Association of University Procurement Officers.

Involving the institution’s procurement department early on provides researchers with access to a network of information, experience and contacts. It is also likely to save money.

“Research procurement needs a combination of the good commercial skills that you will pick up from the procurement department, and good knowledge of equipment, which comes from the researcher,” she says.

Alun Roberts, a spokesman for Research Councils UK, says that the research councils take into account how far the researcher’s institution can provide the support necessary to deliver the aims of a particular project.

Stephen Butcher, head of procurement and shared services at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recommends you approach your institution’s procurement department for advice at the beginning of a project.

Changes to European law and new technology have made the procurement process more complex than it used to be, which increases the need to seek advice.

Adrian Vranch, academic developments manager of information and learning services at Plymouth University, notes that the procurement rules from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the European Union and your own institution will all be different. Be aware of deadlines too, he adds, so that you are not rushing to spend the money at the last minute.

Conversely, purchasing too early may mean that equipment becomes obsolete before it is needed. Ideally, purchases should serve not only your present project but later endeavours by you or colleagues.

Rhidian Morgan, head of procurement at Swansea University, says you nevertheless need to define your requirements thoroughly at the beginning, including full details of the technical or output specification, level of service required and the timescale.

He advises checking whether there is a suitable agreement already in place to supply the items you need, and adds that it is important to work in collaboration whenever appropriate. “As a rule, bigger contracts and larger orders attract lower prices,” he says.

Morgan says that it is essential to comply with your institutional purchasing policy and procedures and the European Procurement Regulations and that researchers obtained all appropriate authorisations before making a commitment to a supplier.

Requirements should be subjected to competition wherever possible, with tenders invited or quotations in writing. Do not divulge your budget or convey details to one supplier of offers received from another. Nor should you accept gifts or hospitality from suppliers while negotiating.

John Feraday, procurement manager at University College London, warns against being too cosy with suppliers, who may promise a special deal that turns out to be no such thing. Salesmen sometimes play on academics’ lack of experience of the commercial world, he warns.

Morgan says you should use your own terms and conditions of contract, or the model terms set down by the Research Equipment Affinity Group, rather than accepting those of the supplier. Ensure that both parties sign the contract, and pay promptly once the equipment has been delivered satisfactorily.

One important consideration, says Bushrod, is whole-life costing. A seemingly cheaper piece of kit may turn out to be the most expensive, once the cost of delivery, fitting, maintenance, training, operation and warranties have been taken into account.

Finally, Vranch advises that researchers strive to be fully accountable and to do everything through the proper channels: when later someone asks what they have done with the money, the answers will be easy to provide.

Links:

Research Equipment Affinity Group

Research Councils UK

Association of University Procurement Officers

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