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UCL Consultants look to IRIS

8 January 2016

UCL Consultants use IRIS, the one stop shop for information about research at UCL, to search for academic experts who may be interested in taking on consultancy projects with external organisations.

© UCL Media Services - University College London

By completing a biography and making connections with other groups, themes and places, UCL researchers can make themselves and their work more discoverable, and increase their opportunities to deliver real impact on their research.

Background

UCL Consultants Ltd (UCLC) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of UCL established to help organisations draw upon the wealth of multi-disciplinary expertise that exists among UCL's world-class academic staff. Their clients cover the whole spectrum from multinationals through to SMEs, and from local authorities through to international bodies like the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the European Union.

Opportunities for academic consultancy exist across the full range of research at UCL, and UCLC are working flat out to keep up with incoming requests. Many consultancy opportunities, such as international development projects, involve translating the results of academic research into real world applications. Another big area is data analysis and modelling: making use of a researcher's skills to help an organisation plan or develop their own work; for example, helping public health bodies to target their resources more effectively by modelling disease prevalence. UCLC take a proactive approach to finding consultancy opportunities for UCL academics, monitoring calls that have gone out for competitive tender, building relationships with consultancy firms, and seeking out experts from across UCL who match their clients' requirements.

For each opportunity that comes up, the UCLC team have to identify suitable academics at UCL, find out if they are interested and then get all of the necessary paperwork and materials together within very tight deadlines. Government requests, for example, sometimes have only a two week window from the date they publish the competition through to the deadline for the first stage of the response. Unfortunately, given the complexity and size of UCL, identifying the right academic expert isn't always easy, and consequently many opportunities are missed.

" I often talk to people about the directions they want to go in. They will say "I've done a bit of this before but I think it has really interesting implications and I'd really like to be able to take it into policy or start talking to this industry". And of course, it's not in their IRIS profile. I have talked to people after an opportunity went by and they've said, "I would have been really interested in that." And it's not that I didn't spend a lot of time searching on IRIS for it, but they weren't there. - Björn Christianson, UCL Consultants

How IRIS helps

To help with the search, a key tool for UCLC is IRIS: UCL's one stop shop for information about research activity at UCL. A keyword search in IRIS will return a list of every researcher who has used those words in their profile, as well as matching research groups and publications: a feature that is invaluable for UCLC when it comes to narrowing down the list of potential candidates. This works best when researchers have included a description in layman's terms of the work they do, so that UCLC can quickly determine whether or not they are the person they're looking for. The deep subject expertise required to make sense of publications, combined with the time required, means that the publications stored on IRIS are of little use in identifying the right person in a timely way.

A lot of the information on the individual profiles in IRIS is automatically generated by pulling in data from HR, finance, the Research Publications System (RPS), and Portico. This helps a great deal during the next stage of the process, when UCLC are putting together the paperwork for a submission or a new contract. This is because a lot of the administrative details UCLC need when filling out the paperwork are already available on IRIS, so there is no need for multiple back and forth emails with researchers to figure out the details.

" We can look them up on IRIS and all the information is right there, we don't have to hunt down multiple web sites and importantly from our perspective, we don't have to waste the academic's time getting what should be trivial questions answered. - Björn Christianson, UCL Consultants

More generally, when it comes to making IRIS profiles discoverable by a wider audience, an important feature of IRIS is the amount of search engine optimisation that has been built into it. Every UCL researcher has a public IRIS profile, but a well written and well maintained profile will show up as the first couple of hits in Google when searching for someone by name, and should also appear relatively high up in the results when people search for related keywords. It can therefore be a useful tools for facilitating outreach and engagement with a global audience.

What should UCL researchers do?

When it comes to making a profile discoverable, the first thing is to write a biography which is accessible to lay audiences. When an IRIS profile is blank or just has a one or two sentence description, they don't show up in the keyword searches. This is the first step that UCLC take when trying to find a suitable academic contact, and unless the person doing the search has time and a particular knowledge of the domain, they won't be able to find a researcher by reading through the publications or browsing through departmental websites.

In general, IRIS is best viewed as a tool for setting up a public profile aimed at people who are interested in the topic, but don't know the jargon: the policy makers, the companies, the multi-disciplinary collaborators. A good biography therefore, is one that lays out in lay person friendly language what big picture questions the researcher is interested in, what sort of work they're doing around that and also ideally a little bit about their past experience: who they've worked with, what sort of projects they've done. A really great profile goes one step further and tells the reader what the person wants to be doing, what it is they're really interested in. That could be the scientific question they're interested in, or the type of people they want to engage with. It also helps to be clear: if someone is interested in doing consultancy, saying exactly that in the profile increases the odds that someone will approach you!

Making an Impact

UCLC have over a thousand registered consultants, but that is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of UCL academics they actually work with. Consultants are only registered when a project is confirmed, and a lot of the work that UCLC do is to provide advice and support to academics who are considering consultancy work. Whilst most consultancy projects consist of relatively small work packages, some have the potential to make a big difference to an academic career, and UCLC put a lot of effort into making sure that those projects are the right fit for them.

Whilst academics can earn money through consultancy work, UCL also benefits as an institution: UCLC have doubled their turnover over the past three years, and returned £5.5 million to UCL last year alone. A big part of this growth is down to UCLC's proactive approach: seeking out opportunities, helping clients to reach the people who can help them, and then helping the academics to actually take the work forward. At present, there remains a great deal of room for growth, and UCLC expect to take on more and bigger projects going forwards.

Perhaps the most important impact of consultancy however is on Impact with a capital 'I' - in the sense that it is about taking the expertise and knowledge generated by UCL's research and teaching, and engaging with people to try and bring it into practice. Delivering global impact is one of the principal themes of UCL's 2034 strategy, and whilst they are not the only means, consultancy projects have the potential to be a major channel for implementing solutions to global challenges.

As UCL continues to grow, it shows no sign of becoming any less complex an organisation, and the problems UCLC face when it comes to trying to find out who to talk to, are problems we all face. Relationships between researchers cross disciplines, institutions and international borders, and a key feature of IRIS is that it allows UCL researchers to highlight these connections in their profiles. For each of their research activities, researchers can identify their collaborators, the general themes of the work, and even the countries the work is associated with (see the UCL Research World Map). The more that these capabilities are used, the more the potential of IRIS as a tool for supporting discovery and engagement with the global community will grow.

Links

UCL Consultants: www.ucl.ac.uk/consultants

UCL IRIS: iris.ucl.ac.uk

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