In 2021, three EUR researchers walked into the Erasmus Research Services Business Development & Knowledge Transfer (ERS BDKT) office with an idea: study the ethics of Artificial Intelligence in public safety issues by applying for an NWO/NLAIC funded Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (ELSA) Lab. Let’s take a look at how this project, called AI-MAPS, came to life, and how the ERS BDKT team supported the researchers from idea to submission phase.*
*Note: it is respectfully acknowledged that there were several other parties closely involved in the AI-MAPS application process, however, the focus of this article is specifically on consortium-building process undertaken by the Erasmus Research Services Business Development & Knowledge Transfer (ERS BDKT) team.
There simply aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything alone
Most academics can agree that the application process for research funding - while necessary and valuable – is quite complex and time-consuming. Funding applications requiring multi-disciplinary or multi-agency consortia as part of the process can be particularly daunting. Since researchers devote much of their time to their research projects, writing and teaching, allocating time for activities like applying for grants or investing in networking with external parties for potential future collaborations can be a real challenge.
EUR employs professionals in various in-house research support service positions (for example, Administrative Assistants, Grant Advisors, Business Developers, Legal Counsels, Project Managers, Data Stewards, and many others). When a researcher connects with the appropriate research support department in a timely fashion, they can greatly benefit from such services.
Professors Gabriele Jacobs, Evert Stamhuis and Klaus Heine did just that. They wished to conduct research on the ethics of AI and public safety. The Professors identified the ELSA lab as a great instrument to bring their research closer to society and decided to apply for funding. Early in the process, they approached the ERS BDKT team to discuss their proposal idea and request support with identifying and connecting them to possible partners and building up the consortium.
A time-optimizing strategy is key
Following an initial meeting between the researchers and the ERS BDKT team, a plan of action was designed. This plan optimized each team member’s time by allocating them to the proposal section(s) where they had the most expertise and could add the most value.
Masja Kempen, ERS Grant Advisor, supported the research team from an early stage, securing €15,000 for the proposal writing process as well as providing additional hands-on support for managing the grant writing process. ERS Business Developer Parul Benien, focused on the consortium-building aspects. Although consortium-building is just one of several services offered by ERS BDKT, it was where ERS BDKT could contribute in the most meaningful way for this specific funding application. And the researchers were able to focus on the scientific elements of the proposal.
Parul undertook a variety of consortium-building tasks such as, attending a pitch and matchmaking session organized by NWO as well as determining, establishing, and maintaining contact with internal and external parties beneficial for this collaboration. The researchers wanted an industry partner with expertise in 5G infrastructure; and getting in touch with the right person was unexpectedly time-consuming. It took determination, tenacity, six weeks and many LinkedIn messages. In the end, the effort was worth it - the researchers were successfully connected with the 5G partner they needed.
Mistakes happen but prompt action can “save the day”
As a first step towards building the consortium, an ERS BD will typically ask everyone involved with the proposal to reach out to their respective networks to gauge interest and leads. While the ERS BDKT team also has their own extensive network to rely on, it is the combination of the researcher’s networks with the ERS BDKT network that generates the best results. However, with so many people involved in an already complex application process, it can be quite challenging to maintain a full overview of the leads initiated by various parties; and sometimes a great lead may inadvertently slip through the cracks.
A few days prior to the submission deadline for AI-MAPS, it came to Parul’s attention that contact had been initiated with a high-level and prestigious organization but hadn’t been followed up. Instead of focusing on the negative, Parul spent her time re-establishing contact with that organization, ultimately succeeding in adding them to the AI-MAPS consortium despite the tight deadline.
What was the result?
After months of hard work by everyone involved, the original idea brought by the researchers had been fully developed into the AI-MAPS ELSA Lab proposal. AI-MAPS employs an advanced design-based approach which will lead to generation of scalable and generalizable insights. This will lead to frameworks and products that facilitate continuous learning across multiple agencies for the development of human-centric and ethical AI.
AI-MAPS contains an impressive and robust consortium of 26 parties including, among others: researchers from five Dutch schools/universities and The Netherlands Institute for Applied Sciences; governmental partners like the Dutch National Police; large businesses like Deloitte, Nokia and Google; partners from national and international public knowledge institutions; and partners representing foundations, NGO’s, as well as small and mid-size businesses. Together, they will work on human-centred, trustworthy AI safeguards to be included in policy and decision-making, design, engineering and will be implemented by security professionals and used by citizens.
By the end of the year, there was cause to celebrate: the AI-MAPS ELSA Lab proposal was granted and funding of nearly €2.2 Million was secured!
What contributed to the success & can it be replicated with YOUR future project?
While it was a successful outcome and funding was granted for AI-MAPS, three key factors contributed to the success of the application process itself. First, Professors Jacobs, Stamhuis and Heine had a great research idea and connected with ERS BDKT early on in the process. Second, the researchers worked with in-house research support services staff through the various stages of completion of the proposal, thereby fully valorising on the experiences of ERS. Third, the group worked together in a collegial manner built on trust, proactivity and mutual respect (supplemented with a dose of good humour) while keeping their sights on their goal.
The bottom line: If you have ideas or thoughts about your current or future research goals and want to see what support is available, just reach out! EUR supports its researchers with a robust offering of professional research services. It is never too early to connect.