An Evaluation of the Role of Cooperative Research Networks in Scientific Research
(Theme 3: The Evaluation of Collaboration and Networking in European S&T;)

Dr Kirsty Hughes
Ian Christie

  • to further our understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of collaborative research, focusing in particular on the costs and benefits of participation in national and European cooperative research networks

  • to analyse cooperative scientific research networks and to assess why they exist, how they function and with what results. To undertake eight comparative case studies of cooperative scientific research networks in four pairs of case studies - one UK and one European in each pair

Main Results

Collaboration in networks is increasingly seen as a key feature of scientific research though with some variation by discipline.

Funding is a key motivation for most but not all network participants. Other key motivations include: participating in a larger research project than would otherwise be possible (economies of scale); participating in a different research project than would otherwise be feasible due to differences in expertise across members of the network (economies of scope); acquiring new expertise, entering a new area, obtaining up-to-date information and scientific results, widening contacts, opportunities for further collaboration and fundraising, and status (externalities). In particular, it is possible to identify three main types of network: networks based essentially on scale economies which aim to undertake larger projects than would be feasible otherwise; networks based on scope economies which aim to benefit from the varying skills and disciplines of members of the network, and networks whose primary function is to encourage more informal interaction, information exchange and communication.

Management and communication.
The management and/or coordination role in a network is a critical one. The nature of the managerial role can make a crucial difference to the effective and successful functioning of a network. There is, however, no one particular style of management appropriate to managing a network as the type of management necessary will depend on the aims of the network, the skills and contributions of the different participants, the size of the network, funding, and length of time the network will be in operation. Some networks will need to be more tightly managed than others where specific joint or common outputs are required, especially where these need to be in common formats. Nevertheless not all the activities of a network need to be tightly managed. Within clear output requirements and deadlines, it is still possible to leave participants a substantial degree of autonomy.

On the basis of the eight case studies carried out there is a negative relationship between the overall strength or degree of managerial control and the extent of interaction within a network. There is also a positive relationship between a high amount of central managerial control and the existence of communication problems in networks. What these results suggest is that one of the key beneficial aspects of networks is the extent of interaction among different parts of the network. Such interaction has to some extent to be informal and flexible, it cannot be tightly controlled and managed from the centre. Networks need to be sufficiently flexible to allow changes in operation and functioning of the network over time. It is also apparent that there are substantial learning effects involved in networks from the managerial and from the participants' point of view.

Diversity and knowledge transfer.
Networks appear to be particularly beneficial where there is considerable diversity among the participants. This requires however than the aims of the network are clearly specified and that it is feasible and beneficial for scientists with diverse skills or approaches to interact and work together. Even where networks are not strongly interdisciplinary, the case studies indicated that substantial benefits were gained purely from the differences in approach that scientists in the same area may take in different institutes or different countries. These differences are not large - it is clear that science is international - nevertheless, small differences in focus, emphasis or approach can be very valuable in leading to beneficial information exchange and joint research. In this context, Europe is seen as having substantially greater strength than the Americans or Japanese. European diversity, rather than being an impediment to the achievement to the economies of scale, is viewed as a key factor in providing positive economies of scope within cooperative networks.

Knowledge transfer, communication and information exchange within networks were seen as an important function of these networks. In a number of cases, it appeared that participating in a network was an important way of staying up-to-date in one's field and that this was more effective and more valuable than more informal methods such as through conferences and acquiring discussion papers.

National and international networks.
The networks based predominantly on economies of scale will tend to be the larger networks and for this reason of size alone maybe more likely to be European than national networks. Networks based on scope economies or on information exchange and communication may be national or European. Scope economies may be greater at a European level given the greater diversity that exists - this will however depend on the nature of the science and the nature of the particular projects involved.

Participants in the case studies did not in general see any major differences in participating in European relative to domestic networks. Geographical distance within Europe was seen as relatively unimportant (though not to the US and Japan). Cultural differences were seen as relatively unimportant and language differences were also not perceived as problematic. Difficulties in network communication - apart from being due to managerial problems - were seen as largely due to personality differences and skill differences rather than to cultural, national or geographical differences.

Implications for policy and practice

  • ex ante evaluation and information: the results suggest substantial information can be obtained by evaluating the main aims of a network prior to its establishment. The network type can be identified - it is based mainly on economies of scale, scope or externalities - and this can be taken into account in assessing likely output and value

  • the importance of the management and coordination role suggests that guidelines, information and advice could usefully be given at the start of a network. On the one hand, clarity of structure and aims of a network is important both for coordinators and participants; on the other hand, networks need to have sufficient flexibility to be able to change and adapt their structures and, if appropriate, their aims, over time

  • more consideration needs to be given to when networks are an appropriate structure relative to single facility research, conferences and more informal means of information exchange

  • the benefits obtainable from diversity in networks needs to be given more weight. Policy should focus more on economies of scope in networks rather than simply on economies of scale

References/Further Reading

PA Geroski, "Anti-trust policy towards cooperative R& D ventures" Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Vol. 9, 1993.

K Hughes "The changing dynamics of international technological competition" in D Audretsch et al Convergence of International and Domestic Markets.

Kirsty Hughes with Ian Christie UK and European Science Policy: the role of cooperative research networks. London: Policy Studies Institute, 1995.

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