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The Mega Collaboration

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The old joke says that the surest way to kill a project is to assign it to a committee. But while many research efforts are indeed subject to the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen wisdom, certain projects are so large that a consortium approach makes the most sense.

Kellye Eversole has spent the better part of the past two decades proving that consortia are effective ways of accomplishing good science. Eversole, who runs her own scientific and technology consulting firm, has been an essential figure in a number of major international efforts including the genome sequencing consortia for cow, pig, wheat, and corn.

The first step in any major research program is to decide the best model to run it, and a consortium is no different. If you think this kind of approach might be an option for your own work, there are a number of factors to consider. First, the magnitude of the project has to be amenable to a truly large-scale model. Eversole puts this squarely in the "multimillion dollar" range, and says that generally an international scope fits the bill better than something confined to a single country. One reason for an international project, of course, is to avoid duplication of effort; for the genome sequencing projects, for instance, no one was going to win by having researchers in 10 different countries around the world working on 10 virtually identical programs to generate the organism's sequence.

Eversole notes that another key factor is ease of funding. After all, launching a consortium is no small task — so if your project would be fairly straightforward to get funded through, say, an established NIH grant program, then it might be more efficient and simpler to go through normal channels to get the research done. But if there's no clear avenue or if funding will have to be cobbled together from a number of different sources, then a consortium may well be the right choice. Finally, Eversole says that good, open consortia typically generate what's considered "precompetitive" data — that is, information that companies wouldn't be able to or care to patent. If you're working on a project that will produce information that will probably become protected IP, it's unlikely that you'll be able to get companies to put aside those patenting interests in order to partner on the project.

All systems go

Once you've decided to pursue a consortium-based effort, there are a number of ducks to get in a row. Any good project of this scope needs a champion — often a scientist who's willing to take the time to drive the creation of the consortium and persuade people of the importance of contributing to it. The inherent challenge here is to avoid choosing someone who's motivated by personal interests, such as wanting to get funded to do the research. Eversole says that when you find someone to evangelize the project and who just wants funding to go to the best team, "that's when you know they're really committed to doing the project." Installing a champion who's actually just after the grant support or something to add to his or her CV ultimately will be a disservice to the consortium as a whole.

Another critical element, according to Eversole, is fostering industry involvement. Having industry — Eversole uses the term in its broadest sense to mean end users of the data generated by a consortium effort — at the table means that major research projects will be more likely to focus on producing results that will be used by the community. "Sitting down with the people who are going to use that data [will help consortium leaders] understand how to translate your fundamental information," she says.

With the key players in place, the next step is to establish a detailed road map for the project. That means not only end goals for the effort but also short-term and long-term milestones so that at each step, all the members will know what's expected of them. The document helps provide accountability and clarity in a research model that's prone to wandering off track with so many people and organizations playing a role. Road maps are typically planned during workshops attended by a good cross-section of consortium members, Eversole says. During this process, she recommends paying particular attention to successful consortia in this field or any other so you can see what steps worked for them and what didn't.

As your plan coalesces, you'll find yourself in the familiar position of wondering where to get funding. "Start exploring with some of the funding agencies what some of the requirements are," Eversole advises.

If your consortium members span several countries, be sure to check out relevant funding agencies and even philanthropies across all those governments. Funds may wind up coming from one place or, more likely, from several places (each with its own regulations about how that money is to be used). You'll have to be creative, but on the bright side, you'll have more avenues to consider than you might with a traditional research project.

Lastly, you'll want to place great importance on the choice of a program manager. This was the role Eversole played in many of the genomics consortia she has been involved in over the years, and she says that it's essential to have someone at the helm who isn't affiliated with any of the participant institutions. "You're going to want someone who is independent of the different institutes so everyone can basically come and complain" to that person, she says. The person should clearly not have favorites among consortium members, and in international projects, this impartiality helps members feel that the project manager is not biased toward any particular country. "Having someone who's objective in that regard is critical," Eversole says.

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