Driver Interface Group - Arranging Research
How Does a Company Arrange to Have Research Conducted at UMTRI?
Projects may supported using contracts, gifts, purchase orders, and affiliate programs, with contracts being the most common arrangement for funding research at UMTRI. Potential sponsors should bear in mind the process described in the sections that follow varies from project to project.
- Pre-proposal Discussions
- Planning Document Preparation
- Proposal Preparation
- Project Scheduling
Most projects begin with personal contacts at conferences or with telephone inquiries that lead to a meeting at the sponsor's local office or UMTRI. It is preferred that at least 1 meeting be at UMTRI so we can show the facilities that might be useful to a project (though this web site may reduce the need for such). If several people representing the sponsor want to visit UMTRI, they are encouraged to come together. Generally, several phone contacts, faxes, electronic mail exchanges, and meetings follow before the sponsor requests (by letter or e-mail) a written description of the proposal of work. Such written requests require authorization from management in the sponsor's organization and are a signal to us the sponsor is serious about supporting research. They also clarify the research objectives. We generally will not act on verbal requests. We have some capability to translate from Japanese. Sponsors should realize that proposal development is expensive to all parties, and should not be engaged in unless funding is available.
UMTRI's initial response to a written request for research is often a "planning document." Planning documents do not contain budgets or schedules. They are 3-20 pages long and contain a detailed description of the questions to be examined, the work to be done, and references, but no literature review. Planning documents are reviewed by sponsors and, based on their feedback, are revised 2 or 3 times before there is agreement about what the research should be. This process takes time and costs potentially billable hours. To put costs in perspective, a $75,000 project should provide many months of support for the staff collecting the data but maybe less than a month of time for the lead scientist. As a consequence, only a few days, at most, of time can be cost justified on pre-project discussions and preparations.
UMTRI treats all contractual discussions as confidential and request similar treatment in return. All of our ideas and proposal materials should be treated as confidential. We have no problems with signing nondisclosure agreements that cover proposals. We prefer to use the University's nondisclosure agreement as a starting point. Often industry agreements do not fit the University's situation. Sponsors should realized that such agreements must be reviewed by the University's legal staff and approved by higher administrative authorities. Developing a mutually acceptable agreement can take a month.
If asked by the sponsor, we will also send them a blank copy of the standard industry research contract ("Roundtable Research Agreement"). This agreement was collaboratively developed by universities, industry, and the government under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Versions of it are used by many research universities in the U.S. This document comes from the Division of Research Development and Administration unit of the University, ( "the contracts office"), not UMTRI. Reviewing the Agreement in parallel with proposal preparation speeds up the planning process.
Once there is general agreement on the research to be conducted, the sponsor should send the University a written request for quote. Email is fine. The University's response will be a formal proposal, consisting of 2 sections-a technical section (a revision of the planning document) and a contract (a completed Roundtable Agreement). The technical section includes a schedule and an itemized budget. Because the scope of work often expands (sometimes by as much as 50%) during discussions, we do not prepare budgets until all technical questions are resolved. The sponsor should generally allow a minimum of 2 weeks for preparation of a proposal. During that time we finalize the budget and schedule, and those materials are reviewed by an accountant. Written approval of the formal proposal is required from the Group Head, the Institute's Business Manager, and the Director. For large projects, a signature from the University's Vice-President for Research may be required. Materials are then forwarded to Research Administration which prepares the contract and mails the package to the sponsor. Bids are good for 30 days unless otherwise stated in the submission documents.
Concurrent with preparing the proposal, an outline of the research is written for the University's Human Subjects Review Committee. The committee examines proposed research to assure that experiments meet national standards for the protection of participants. The process usually takes a month and is sometimes completed before the sponsor has signed the contract. Research involving human subjects may not begin until the Review Committee has approved the project.
For some countries (e.g., Japan, Korea, China, etc.) having the proposal signed is not the final step in starting a project. They require that contracts with U.S. organizations be submitted for approval to their designated government office (often their U.S. consulate). This could delay final approval of a contract for 1 or 2 weeks.
Finally, several sponsors have asked if their new engineers could work at UMTRI as part of their training (at no cost to the University). Such placements may need to be coordinated with specific projects supported by the sponsor. Placements have ranged from 6 months to 2-1/2 years. Sending both people and financial support suggests sponsors are interested in long-term relationships, which heightens our interest in them. Engineers and others placed in University labs will be expected to comply with University policy. Their employers will assume full liability for the conduct of their employees including access to and nondisclosure of proprietary information. Additional details on visiting engineers appear in a subsequent section.
When Research Administration receives a signed contract, they inform us and the accounting office, which establishes an account number, a process that takes a day or so. We cannot do any work until we have an account number.
It should be clear from this discussion that arranging for a research project can be time-consuming. It is unusual for those discussions to be completed in less than a month and there have been times when discussions were on and off over a period of years. Our experience is that the time from initial contact to an acceptable proposal averages about 6 months. Activities during the time period include the sponsor reviewing our suggestions, obtaining authorization to proceed, or making arrangements to provide test hardware, vehicles, or test track time if needed.
New research projects need to be coordinated with the demands of projects in progress, our first priority. New projects may require hiring more students or staff. We do not hire additional people until we have a signed contract. Typically, because of the teaching load of some scientists and student schedules, it is best if a project starts at the beginning of the academic semesters (January 1, May 1, September 1). With regard to student research assistants, they plan their schedules at least 2 months in advance of the start of a semester, so a contract signed at last 2 months in advance of those dates will allow us to commit to hire them. Further, even if we get the go-ahead, all of our staff may be committed. While sometimes projects can start immediately, our goal is to be booked for 6 months to a year in advance.