Time to spend, spend, spend

August 3, 2007

To invest your hard-won research grant to optimum effect, you need to enlist the help of your institution's procurement department and wise up to tempting sales patter. Harriet Swain explains

Money, money, money. Isn't it funny? After battling for months to secure a research grant, spending the loot can be just as tricky. But no one is going to laugh if you ask for help. In fact, 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 procurement department of your university early on puts you in touch with a network of information, experience and contacts that would otherwise be difficult to access. It is also likely to save you a few pennies.

Bushrod says that while individual institutions compete over research, the higher education sector as a whole has to ensure value for public money by preventing unscrupulous suppliers exploiting individual researchers.

"Research procurement is an area that 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 when awarding grants 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.

And Stephen Butcher, head of procurement and shared services at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says you should always at least approach your institution's procurement department for advice at the beginning of a project. They will help you in areas where you may not have the skills to get on with it alone.

He says 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, says you have to bear in mind that the procurement rules from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the European Union and your own institution, which will all be different. Be aware of deadlines too, he warns, so that you are not rushing to spend the money at the last minute.

On the other hand, don't buy so early that your equipment becomes obsolete before you have a chance to use it. Try to make sure you are getting the very latest model, not only for the benefit of your own project but so that it can be used by others afterwards.

If you do find yourself running out of time to spend the money, it may be possible to negotiate, but try to plan ahead as much as possible, he says. "Don't antagonise the finance department."

Nor should you put off suppliers by being too prescriptive about what you want. Butcher's advice is to think about what outcome you want a piece of equipment to deliver rather than exactly what you want it to look like. That gives more scope for them to come up with novel ways of solving your problem.

Bushrod says researchers often insist on a particular piece of equipment when it would be possible to get better results with something very different. "The important thing is to keep an open mind about how your research needs can be addressed," he says.

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 plan ahead and work in collaboration with others whenever appropriate. "As a rule, bigger contracts and larger orders attract better discounts and lower prices," he says.

He stresses that you must make sure that you comply with your institutional purchasing policy and procedures and the European Procurement Regulations and that you have obtained all appropriate authorisations before you make a commitment to a supplier.

Make sure that your requirements are subjected to competition wherever possible, and that you invite tenders or get quotations in writing, he says. But don't divulge your budget or details to one supplier of offers received from another and never conduct a "Dutch auction" whereby you tell one supplier details of an offer made by another and say if they can beat it they will get the order. Nor should you accept gifts or hospitality from suppliers while in the process of negotiation.

John Feraday, procurement manager at University College London, says a common mistake is to get 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 and their competitiveness with colleagues, 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. Make sure that both parties sign the contract. And once the equipment has been delivered satisfactorily, pay promptly.

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

Finally, Vranch advises making sure you are fully accountable and have done everything through the proper channels, so when later someone asks what you have done with the money you will be able to tell them.

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