It takes a degree of patience to read through a consortium agreement. Consortium agreements are complicated and difficult to understand legal documents. It is tempting to think as little as possible about the content of such a complicated legal document. You should stay focused on your science and leave all the contracting to someone else, right?
Consortia require a different way of working. You take on a complex and ambitious project with multiple partners outside of your organisation, some of which you do not know at all. A consortium project increases logistical and administrative challenges that you will have to face. This is not to mention the reporting you will have to do if the project is funded by a granting agency.
There is a genuine risk that your consortium project ends up doing nothing more than adding a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy to your research. When people talk about ‘consortium fatigue’ this is what they mean.
Even though you have the prestige of being in a consortium not to mention the funding, it may end up being a net negative because it drains your time and energy away from your research.
If all you want is the funding, a consortium that is nothing more than a loosely affiliated collection of silos it might be okay to pay the collaboration tax of the additional bureaucracy. However, you will be losing something.
Meaningful interaction with a diverse group of disciplines and stakeholders can be an exponential multiplier of your research.
Being able to tap into to the knowledge and thinking of individuals with a wide range of expertise to solve problems is the superpower of consortia. Together you solve problems creatively and more efficiently. Meaningful interaction around problem solving also leads to a better understanding of the techniques and assets of your partners. It also leads to new ideas and the identification of more opportunities for funding.
The challenge is that there is a resilience to the typical way of doing research. Without a degree of vigilance, every consortium project will snap back into a being nothing more than a collection of silos. How can you prevent that from happening? The consortium agreement is a fabulous place to start.
Making sense of consortium agreements
The best way to make sense of something that is complicated like a consortium agreement is to develop a simple mental model. The trick is not to get caught up in the legal complexities.
I think of consortium agreements as having two simple components: consortium governance and intellectual property. Make them simple like that helps you focus on what is most important for you as a researcher.
Principle and strategy
The principle you should follow is that you should fulfil both partner needs and project ambitions. If you want to know more about that strategy it is the topic of chapter five in Assembled Chaos.
Your strategy should be twofold. First, make sure the consortium agreement provides for a sufficient amount of meaningful interaction. Second, the intellectual property should be linked to concrete outputs such as deliverables. Many agreements are vague and just mention any ‘results’. By linking the IP terms to well described concrete outputs you can more easily determine who owns and has access to what IP. Clarity on IP ownership makes it easier to share and collaborate. Vague definitions of outputs leave the consortium partners in a protective position. The goal should be to create a win/win/win:
Industry: access to data and samples for internal research use
Academia: data and samples to publish more
Patients: accelerate drug development while protecting privacy
Here are a few questions you can keep in mind as your read a consortium agreement:
Does the agreement include frequent enough opportunities for interaction?
Is the decision-making process feasible?
Does the IP strategy protect IP well enough that your partners will be willing to share results and ideas without fear of losing IP?
This should give you the right mindset to review the consortium agreement with a purpose in mind. The next couple of posts I will describe some specific ways to shape the consortium agreement in terms of governance and IP protection that will set the foundation for a highly interactive consortium. If you want to be notified when those posts are published, sign up to the Assembled Chaos Digest.