Frontloading Impact: S-Shaped Research Strategies

By Dr. William Lee

The way in which research is judged and research proposals are evaluated for funding is changing. National and European funding agencies are telling academics that the very best research, i.e. the research they will fund, is academically excellent, but also has a real world impact. Whilst this overall goal is clear there is more than one route to it. Figure 1 illustrates two possible routes to of academically excellent research with real world impact: I call these N-shaped and S-shaped strategies.

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Figure 1

I think of an N-shaped strategy, shown on the left hand side of Figure 1, as the standard academic approach. Initially, academic excellence is pursued, (1) with real world impact a secondary consideration. Once this goal has been achieved consideration is given to real world impact. Once a suitable real world problem is identified and collaboration with the problem owner established, a benchmarking solution to the problem is put together using existing tools and techniques (2). The shortcomings of this solution are documented illustrating the need for an improved approach. Finally, (3), a solution incorporating the new research is completed.

I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with this approach or denying that there are many sophisticated variations on the caricatured version described above.

However it is not the only way to proceed, and as Industrial Mathematicians an alternate strategy based on frontloading impact and collaboration with an industrial partner is also open to us, the S-shaped strategy shown on the right of Figure 1.

In this strategy a solution to a real world is the starting point. Initially it is “solved”, (1), using preexisting mathematical tools and techniques. Often this solution highlights shortcomings of those tools and improvements are pursued as research objectives, producing high quality academic research (2). In the final stage this new academic research is used to produce an new solution to the real world approach surpassing the previous state of the art (3).

S-shaped strategies are particularly useful in highly competitive environments in which significant industrial co-funding is needed for research proposals to be accepted. Ireland is currently such an environment and Figure 2 shows a blueprint for funding a research group using an S-shaped strategy developed within the MACSI research group.

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Figure 2

This blueprint is aimed at the idea of building confidence between academic and industrial partnerships through progressively more substantial interactions, with impact built in from the beginning.

In MACSI we have discovered that it is very important to have  an integrated approach to working with industry since early stages outlined by the blueprint (e.g. study groups and consultancy), while essential are very resource intensive and only justify the input of the time and resources of the group if success in joint funding applications can be achieved.

William Lee will take up a post at the University of Portsmouth in 2016 where he will initiate and lead activity in Industrial Mathematics. He intends to use a combination of N-shaped and S-shaped strategies.

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