Putting the “competitive” into research intelligence
October 20, 2023
By Ian Evans
Connie Stovall shows how her institution is using research intelligence to amplify its impact — and find the best collaborators
When it comes to research intelligence, Connie Stovall(opens in new tab/window), Director for Research Impact and Intelligence at Virginia Tech(opens in new tab/window), thinks in terms of competition and collaboration.
“I refer to my work as competitive intelligence because I’m looking at the market and research landscape,” she explains. “I’m looking at what other institutions are doing — not just scholarly output, but what grants they’re applying for, who they’ve worked with in the past.
“But it’s not just about understanding the competition,” she adds. “It’s about understanding who might be a good collaborator.”
However one describes the discipline, research intelligence has become an increasingly important tool for universities and individual researchers looking to makes sense of our increasingly complex world. It’s a way of honing grant applications for the greatest chance of success, and it can be used — as Connie goes on to demonstrate — to foster inclusion and diversity in the world of research. It’s also a component of research integrity, helping research institutions fill gaps in their expertise by finding the right research partners and providing a way to track impact on initiatives such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Used well, research intelligence can also bolster the impact of research, Connie explains:
I’ll give you an example: We have researchers who are using artificial intelligence along with other tools, and they’re working in a multidisciplinary fashion with people in medicine to predict pandemics. Using SciVal, I can map what other institutions are doing, what grants they’ve won, and review all these grants that have already been awarded to understand who was either a competitor or might be a good collaborator to fill the gap.
Connie notes as well that in the US, it’s becoming increasingly important to have a diverse range of institutions working on a proposal. The COVID-19 pandemic had disproportionate effects on different communities, and including those perspectives in pandemic research strengthens the proposal and facilitates knowledge transfer between institutions.
“In order to get grants,” she says, “it’s important to partner with historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs), but it can’t be an empty gesture — there needs to be an important reason for doing so. It needs to be meaningful. So again, using a tool like SciVal, I can identify HCBUs that focus on the kind of research we’re thinking of or could fill a gap for us. From there, we work with our Office of Inclusion and Diversity to foster relationships with the most relevant institutions and hopefully create a proposal that is unique and provides a great deal of value.
Once the research is underway, Connie can use the same tools to track the impact of these collaborations. As research spend comes under ever greater scrutiny, understanding the impact of each initiative is essential for an institution looking to demonstrate its value. Connie gave an example from her institution: Virginia Tech recently received a cooperative agreement award from the National Science Foundation with five other institutions:
Now that we have the grant, the program manager wants to see quarterly and annual reports on all the publications. So everything coming out of that grant has a tracking number showing us the publications. But we also track citations of that research, where the research is published, (and) whether it’s being published in open access journals.
Connie says the team also keeps track of how facilities and equipment gets used: If another research team uses a facility funded by that NSF grant, it’s another indicator that the money is being used effectively. That transparency helps build confidence in the world of research, giving universities a clear set of indicators that can be used to demonstrate the impact they are making.
Furthermore, having a clear-sighted strategy around competitive intelligence helps build connections with industry, giving further opportunities for research to be applied and make a difference to the world:
Just looking at Virginia Tech’s impact, the corporations we’ve worked with are really significant: Microsoft, Google, people of that caliber. I think it’s an area some institutions overlook when measuring impact, but it’s very important. When you have patent citations that mention your institution, that’s something you want to be able to showcase.
Connie recently stewarded a webinar for Elsevier on Using Research Analytics Tools to Conduct Competitive Intelligence on Water Research(opens in new tab/window). In some ways, the topic of water research was arbitrary — the lessons she shared apply could apply to any topic — but it provided a useful opportunity to showcase how research intelligence tools can track an institution’s impact on the SDGs:
“It was a really good opportunity to bring out that there are these pre-populated groups in SciVal around the SDGs, and the water research we were looking at fits very neatly into that,” she says. “So not only are you looking at the global landscape for water research — you’re seeing where you fit into the sustainability goal.”
As Connie points out, tracking impact on SDGs is an important way of making progress on those same goals.
I think Europe is some way ahead of us in embracing the SDGs, but it’s gaining momentum in the US as well. It may be rankings driven overall rather than problems driven, but as an institution that has a strong Natural Resources college, it’s important for us to be able to contribute to sustainability — to understand what is going on out in the world and who we might collaborate with.
For people looking to expand their use of research intelligence tools, Connie has some advice:
I like the new tool in Scopus — Researcher Discovery — where you can put a particular researcher in (the search), and it gives you a list of similar researchers. That’s a great way of expanding your pool of collaborators beyond the obvious and even to find potential new hires.