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An alternative model for Strategic Thematic Areas of Research Excellence (STAs)

The process of SPARC development, recognition and implementation through the HMR+ process has provided a model for mid-sized multidisciplinary research and educational entities that are located across University campuses, include multiple Faculties, Schools and Disciplines and are endorsed as a pan-University STA.

The Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity (MBI) provides a model of a STA which functions effectively and efficiently without a stand-alone building (while maintaining elements of co-location in existing or planned buildings within the different campus precincts).

Essential elements of the MBI model

  • Virtual institute with a co-housed, small, core executive and a large multidisciplinary network of collaborators and partners. Staff are appointed through their constituent Faculties or Schools, which manage HR issues and benefit from research outputs, teaching income etc. (except for an agreed administrative support charge for multidisciplinary courses e.g. Master of Health Security – coordinated through FASS). This structure minimizes cost, maximizes efficiency and optimizes the multiplier effect within all participating faculties/schools).
  • Concept of a host faculty: MBI was established and has been sustained by a grant (since renewed for 4 years) from the SMS Foundation, a 0.5 FTE salary for the Director from the SMS recurrent budget, some targeted philanthropic funding and substantial leveraged grant funding (i.e. competitive grant successes as a result of establishing MBI). The core executive is supported and guided by a multi-faculty, multidisciplinary Advisory Board (currently constituted as per the University Centres Policy) to encourage complementary initiatives across the University and to ensure maximal cross-disciplinary benefit. This concept reduces the administrative burden on the central university and avoids the support levy imposed across the University in the SPARC model, but ensures that the institute/centre receives administrative oversight/guidance and is aligned with reporting requirements within the host faculty/school.
  • Limited central University support: MBI (and any new STA) is recognized as a strategic thematic area of research excellence and importance within the University and is endorsed by SEG as the formal pan-university representative for that theme. Within the central university the institute/centre will report to the DVC-R office and receive limited support from strategic funds, relative to productivity and recognised national/global leadership. The model of annual, capped, incentive-based funding allocated as a percentage of competitive category 1 funding in excess of $1 million received by the University of Sydney per individual grant) is being trialed with MBI in 2016.

Overview of the host faculty–based virtual institute/centre model

Home faculty Central University
  • Physical home to the core executive
  • Oversight
  • Administrative support
  • Reporting structures
  • SEG endorsement
  • Oversight
  • Assistance with website & marketing
  • Capped, incentive funding & access to philanthropic donations

The conceptual model presented allows the University the ability to develop and implement important strategic initiatives that are essential to ensure the continued vibrancy of its research community, across multiple disciplines, and enhance its reputation as a world-leading research institution. The number of large-scale SPARC initiatives that the university can champion at any time is limited by the cost and complexity of the model. The attractiveness of the multidisciplinary network model includes:

  1. its cost efficiency (no capital or running costs associated with a physical centre/building, small core-executive team),
  2. increased buy-in and cooperation from respective disciplines/faculties since funding flows are not diverted and ownership is shared/retained and
  3. the strong focus on “the greater institutional good” and unlocking of latent synergies.