Networks are becoming even more vital to academic life as they exploit technology to help researchers find colleagues and sustain work in novel fields. Anthea Lipsett reports
When Steve Banwart watched a videoconference seminar by a leading American climate scientist, he had no idea that it would lead to an entirely new multidisciplinary field of research in the UK and millions of pounds in grants.
The seminar, which was set up by the Worldwide Universities Network, inspired the professor of environmental engineering science at Sheffield University to find others in the UK who were interested in "weathering", which combines disciplines to examine the growing environmental problem of soil erosion and degradation.
With the help of the WUN - an international alliance of 16 research universities that is funded through subscriptions - he established a group of like-minded colleagues in different fields to collaborate with their American peers.
"I wasn't aware that there was similar enthusiasm for this subject in the UK. I would have become aware eventually, but the (network) mechanism allowed me to hook up with really keen people more quickly," he said.
Networking, both nationally and internationally, is becoming an ever-more prominent feature of academic life, particularly for researchers in fields where problems cannot be tackled by one institution or country alone.
In November, Newcastle University announced a new £6.7 million European "network of excellence" project on neuromuscular disease that involves 21 partners. In December, Nottingham University launched the UK-China Research Network on Geotechnical Engineering.
Senior academics are, of course, expected to forge international research links, but it can be a time-consuming task. Organisations such as the WUN can work as a catalyst. David Pilsbury, director of the WUN, said it could be hard for individuals to find research colleagues and collaborators and keep up the contacts.
"Not everybody in the UK knows everyone else it is relevant to know. There are not enough hours in the day to do cutting-edge research, teach, administrate and keep an eye on all the developments in the sector. People know those they bump into in the coffee queue and others they like. We're like a dating agency that introduces people.
"Our research seminar series brings people together regularly, and we remind them to stay in touch with the people they meet at conferences," he added.
The WUN's focus is practical. The group relies on modern technology and making it work. Dr Pilsbury said people could cite a litany of networks that have failed. The reason they did not work, he said, was not because they were intrinsically difficult but because they had to be very simple.
"In academe, it's all about the quality of your ideas, but that has to be combined with quality of execution. The idea is the starting point, not the end point.
"We provide pump-priming intellectual venture capital. We work with these people to generate those returns, but there's no expectation of financial return to WUN," Dr Pilsbury explained.
According to Professor Banwart, the WUN helped him bypass university procedures. "It was very helpful to have access to a pot of money for travel to set things up initially," he said. "Having to apply for it can delay things by months."
The global connections also helped Professor Banwart's group to prove to funding bodies that weathering was an internationally recognised problem with a pool of high-quality experts.
As such, they won funding from the National Science Foundation, research councils and the European Commission. "Being able to show that you have brought people together with that level of commitment convinces the people holding the purse strings," Professor Banwart said.
The WUN worked with the researchers to put together proposals and approach research funders. The result was a recent E600,000 (£395,000) grant and the possibility of millions more from FP7 the European Commission's seventh research framework programme.
For Professor Banwart, peer review is the main benefit of international networks, and he finds that thrashing out ideas with specialist experts from outside helps to raise everyone's game. But he misses the eye-to-eye contact and being able to conceptualise ideas by scribbling on paper napkins. "But this type of electronic communication is coming in more and more, even for local and regional and national types of meetings," he said.
In networking across the globe, one confronts different research cultures and institutions. A scholar funded by the Chinese National Academy of Sciences, say, will have different pressures in getting work funded or disseminated from someone in an Ivy League or European university.
Professor Banwart said: "It does give a few more bits of the equation that have to be juggled, but I've encountered nothing yet that the personal motivation and enthusiasm of individuals can't overcome."
- TREAT-NMD (Translational Research in Europe - Assessment and Treatment of Neuromuscular Diseases) http:///www.treat-nmd.eu/
- UK-China GeoNet (research network on Geotechnical Engineering) http:///www.ukchinanetwork.org.uk
- JANET (the UK's education and research network) http:///www.ukerna.ac.uk
- GEANT2 (the seventh generation of pan-European research and education network) http:///www.geant2.net
- National Cancer Research Network www.ncrn.org.uk
- UK Clinical Research Network http:///www.ukcrn.org.uk
- Digital Music Research Network http:///www.elec.qmul.ac.uk/dmrn
- EUCE (network of EU Centers of Excellence) http:///www.unc.edu/euce
- Set up in 2000 after a conference on the globalisation of higher education
- Its members are the universities of Bergen; Bristol; California, San Diego; Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Leeds; Manchester; Nanjing; Oslo; Pennsylvania State; Sheffield; Southampton; Sydney; Washington; Wisconsin-Madison; Utrecht; York; Zhejiang
- To date, the network has won more than $30 million in funding.