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Employers sponsoring engineering research
Staying ahead when it comes to innovation isn’t easy, especially when you’re involved in the fast-moving ICT industry. Throw in a worldwide shortage of engineers and it becomes even trickier. We talked to Google Network Engineer Josh Bailey about Google’s response to the challenge – encouraging academic research by sponsoring a research grant.
What is a research grant?
Research grants (or awards) fund an individual (or sometimes team) to research a specific issue. Usually the applicant has decided on a research topic, although sometimes the funding organisation may discuss the types of projects they’re interested in and guide the researcher in that direction. A grant may include non-financial support for the applicant, such as access to a laboratory, engineering expertise or a research assistant. Applicants submit a proposal for what they plan to do and are expected to report on the outcome.
Benefits for employers
Funding a grant provides an opportunity to step outside your company’s day-to-day activities to explore new ideas or alternative processes. It might be a time to consider that cutting-edge innovation you’ve always thought about but put in the ‘too hard’ basket.
The best possible outcome, of course, is when research leads to a commercially beneficial innovation. That, however, doesn’t occur very often; so why do employers sponsor research which might not give them any advantage? If the research is unsuccessful in terms of the original aim, it doesn’t mean that it’s a failure – it may point the way to other opportunities or solutions. Even where research shows that an idea is completely unviable, it does at least indicate the results of heading down that path and so informs the company’s plans for future investigation or experimentation.
Funding research can be a useful recruitment tool for employers. If you’ve already observed someone in the workplace you have a good idea about how they’d fit into your company – if you offer them employment they bring an existing knowledge of the processes and procedures in your particular work environment. With the next generation of engineers preparing to enter the workforce, offering a research grant could be your chance to engage with some of them early.
Contribution to industry
The greatest benefit of sponsoring research is what it gives to the industry as a whole. The researcher gains valuable experience which they will, in time, bring back to the sector they plan to work in. “It’s especially important to encourage a shared base of talent and develop an interest in areas which need more people with engineering qualifications,” Josh says.
Google Faculty Research Awards
Josh works for Google and is based at Victoria University of Wellington, so has seen how private companies and tertiary education institutions run their award schemes. He emphasises that research doesn’t just mean writing a paper. “A paper is part of the process, not an end it itself; it’s submitting evidence that something has occurred but we need more.” For employers, that means being informed about progress, the implications of the research for their industry, and any options for using that knowledge within their own business.
Google runs various awards schemes, with their Faculty Research Awards programme established to support 'cutting edge' research in computer science, engineering and related fields. Funding is provided to universities to support PhD students and is project based – the researcher must be working towards a specific outcome rather than doing general research. Google asks applicants to submit a proposal that fits into one of approximately 17 categories – ranging from computational neuroscience to hardware and software systems – of interest to their business. The company prefers projects where the results of the research will be made available to the public, through publication or as open source software, or otherwise contribute to the academic community. Josh notes, “While this isn’t a direct benefit to Google alone, it contributes to the industry as a whole.”
Read about Google Faculty Research Awards
Who owns the IP?
If you’re investing money in a research project, who owns the intellectual property? This answer to this question can be muddied by the different concerns of the parties involved. A researcher might be anxious about what they see as industry trying to control their work, while an institution or employer wants to know that they’re not wasting their money on something that won’t benefit them.
“It can turn into a very complicated discussion,” says Josh. “An employer doesn’t seek to control the finer details or count the number of test tubes being used in the lab. But it’s a significant investment of time and money, so a reasonable expectation to know what’s being done and that the money is being spent as intended. The institution gets to have an opinion and know what happens as a result.”
Internationally, the view tends to be that a researcher owns the IP, says Josh. Google explicitly states that the Faculty Research Awards are structured as unrestricted gifts to universities and that Google does not own any IP resulting from awards.
If you’re considering whether and how your organisation might fund a researcher, Josh advises that you need to keep the system simple. Make clear what is available and what is required of applicants, so that it’s a straightforward process.
Do tertiary education institutions also need to better prepare their students for what is expected of them when they move into industry? Josh notes that industry reports sometimes comment that students lack a business-like attitude. “In industry, if something is due by 9a.m. Friday, you don’t get an extension. This can be a huge culture shock for students if it’s the first time they have had that expectation put upon them – it could be something for the education sector to incorporate into the university experience.”
Thank you to Josh for all his time and advice. If you would like to know more, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org