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A relational conceptual framework for multidisciplinary health research centre infrastructure Coen, Stephanie E; Bottorff, Joan L; Johnson, Joy L; Ratner, Pamela A Oct 6, 2010

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RESEARCH Open AccessA relational conceptual framework formultidisciplinary health research centreinfrastructureStephanie E Coen1*, Joan L Bottorff2, Joy L Johnson1, Pamela A Ratner1AbstractAlthough multidisciplinary and team-based approaches are increasingly acknowledged as necessary to addresssome of the most pressing contemporary health challenges, many researchers struggle with a lack of infrastructureto facilitate and formalise the requisite collaborations. Specialised research centres have emerged as an importantorganisational solution, yet centre productivity and sustainability are frequently dictated by the availability andsecurity of infrastructure funds.Despite being widely cited as a core component of research capacity building, infrastructure as a discrete concepthas been rather analytically neglected, often treated as an implicit feature of research environments with little spe-cification or relegated to a narrow category of physical or administrative inputs. The terms research infrastructure,capacity, and culture, among others, are deployed in overlapping and inconsistent ways, further obfuscating thecrucial functions of infrastructure specifically and its relationships with associated concepts.The case is made for an expanded conceptualisation of research infrastructure, one that moves beyond conven-tional ‘hardware’ notions. Drawing on a case analysis of NEXUS, a multidisciplinary health research centre based atthe University of British Columbia, Canada, a conceptual framework is proposed that integrates the tangible andintangible structures that interactively underlie research centre functioning.A relational approach holds potential to allow for more comprehensive accounting of the returns on infrastructureinvestment. For those developing new research centres or seeking to reinvigorate existing ones, this frameworkmay be a useful guide for both centre design and evaluation.BackgroundMultidisciplinary approaches are increasingly acknowl-edged as necessary to address some of the most urgentcontemporary health challenges, yet many university-based researchers struggle with a basic lack of adminis-trative and material resources extending beyond depart-mental bounds to facilitate and formalise thesecollaborations. The highly decentralised structure typicalof many university environments has traditionally cir-cumscribed the scope of research support and facilitiesto specific faculties, schools, or departments. Such frag-mentation creates major practical obstacles for investiga-tors attempting to develop partnerships and teams withdiverse expertise [1-3]. One organisational solutionwidely lauded for facilitating multidisciplinary collabora-tion is the extra-departmental research centre [2,4-11].The primordial purpose of the research centre is “to dowhat departments cannot do: to operate in interdisci-plinary, applied, or capital-intensive areas in response tosocial demands for new knowledge” (p. 17) [[12], seealso [6,7,9,11,13]]. In this niche role, research centresare uniquely positioned to tighten the knowledge-to-action gap.The transformative potential of a research centre,however, may be circumscribed by certain intrinsicstructural limitations. Centre design is more often ad-hoc than theory-informed or evidence-based [6,13].Such “erratic” organisational qualities may be at oddswith the benefits of the flexibility and responsivenessafforded precisely by the very uniqueness of centreforms (p. 1) [6].* Correspondence: scoen@exchange.ubc.ca1School of Nursing, University of British Columbia, 302-6190 Agronomy Road,Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T 1Z3, CanadaFull list of author information is available at the end of the articleCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29© 2010 Coen et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative CommonsAttribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction inany medium, provided the original work is properly cited.Indeed, what might be routinely branded researchcentres are often highly heterogeneous entities[5,6,13-16]. Friedman and Friedman described the orga-nised research unit as “a nondepartmental structure var-iously termed...depending on the local administrativetaxonomy” (p. 27) [5]. Similarly, Tash, drawing on sur-vey data from 300 research consortia in the UnitedStates, reported that the labels institute, centre, andlaboratory were used interchangeably, even though theirattributed meanings were inconsistent and context-con-tingent [11]. Hence, arguments have been put forth fordistinctions to be made among centres, units, and insti-tutes [16]. Various typologies also have been tenderedthat characterise research organisations according todegrees of institutionalisation [17], linkages with fun-ders, departments, or other sectors [11,12], types of col-laborative arrangements [18], and resources, protocols,and goals [7]. With the proliferation of virtual researchteams and remote collaborations independent of sharedworkspace or geographic location, the forms assumed byresearch centres are becoming even more varied [19-21].A recent study of 604 research centres in US medicalschools found that physical space was not a significantdeterminant of centre size or status [8]. It is perhapsnot surprising then that, among this miscellany, fundinghas tended to favour scientific appeal over organisationalsoundness [13].Research centres frequently rely on a limited pool ofcompetitive term-specific, cyclical grants, often from asingle source and narrowly designated for specificresource and administrative costs. As a result, they arehighly susceptible to funding instability [9,10,15]. Asses-sing the progress of Canadian healthcare policy researchcentres, Mekel and Shortt concluded that funding inse-curity leads to disproportionate investment of centreresources into survival manoeuvres, such as undertakingrenewal applications and searches for new fundingsources, leaving fewer resources available for other cen-tre endeavours. The prospects become particularly grimfor activities that may not be directly funded, such asknowledge translation (KT) [15]. Funding insecurity alsocan lead to ‘mission drift’ whereby funds outside thescope of the centre are pursued in the effort to maintainfunctionality [11,22]. Langille et al., in their appraisal ofhealth promotion centres in a region of Canada, evencited infrastructure self-maintenance as one of six pri-mary centre roles [22]. These inefficiencies ultimatelyhamper centre productivity and the capacity to generateinnovative, applicable health evidence [14,15].Further complicating this funding conundrum, tradi-tional return on investment rubrics, to which grantingagencies often subscribe, do not map on well to themultidisciplinary research centre for several reasons.First, the shear diversity of centre types complicates theapplication of any uniform approach [5,6]. Second, per-formance-based modes of evaluation enumerate discreteproducts, such as publications, and are thus ill-equippedto contend with time, variability, and context [14,23].Interdisciplinary research, often requiring greater timeinputs, is especially disfavoured by such measurements[1,3]. Bozeman et al. aptly pointed out that, in perfor-mance-based models, “the tendency to have science andtechnology products disembodied from the individualsand social context producing them provides an unrealis-tic overlay to evaluation” (p. 718) [23]. Third, by oftenrewarding a ‘sure thing’, performance-based criteria maylead to research ‘homogenisation’, discouraging innova-tion and experimentation even when the prospectivesocietal benefits are great [24] - a course clearly counterto the chief advantage of research centres. Geuna andMartin went so far as to argue that the initial benefits ofperformance-based research funding systems result inlonger term diminishing returns as contenders learn to‘play the game’ [24].Despite being centre stage in research centre fundingand approaches to research capacity building [25-27],we contend that infrastructure as a discrete concept hasbeen rather analytically neglected, often treated as animplicit feature of research environments with little spe-cification or relegated to a narrow category of physicalor administrative inputs. When specified, infrastructureis often uncritically consigned to readily apparent fea-tures, such as space, equipment, and research supportstaff [2,16,27-29]. Interestingly, these same discussionshave pointed to the more dynamic and interactivepotential of infrastructure, but have stopped short ofdetailing what such configurations might look like [cf.[25,29]]. The terms research infrastructure, capacity, andculture, among others, are also deployed in overlappingand inconsistent ways, further obfuscating the crucialfunctions of infrastructure specifically and its relation-ships with associated concepts [27].In broader examinations of research environments,infrastructure is commonly included as one of manyparsed features, separated from dimensions such as cul-ture, visibility or identity, partnerships and linkages,training and mentorship, communications, and KT[2,22,25,27-29]. These divisions are helpful to the extentthat they may delineate key areas for development orevaluation, but they also reinforce the notion that suchaspects operate separately and that their outcomes arepotentially measurable independently. Rather, we arguethat compartmentalised approaches to research environ-ments are largely limited by their inability to accountfor the relationships among components. Some researchhas supported the notion that interactions among fea-tures of research environments can yield concrete bene-fits. For example, Hanney et al., in their evaluationCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 2 of 10study of two health research centres in the United King-dom, observed what they called the ‘centre effect’:research outputs generated circular returns to researchcentres by expanding their ‘internal knowledge reser-voir’, which could be drawn upon, for example, in devel-oping policy-relevant evidence. A strong centre identityalso was shown to be beneficial in leveraging funds andother returns [14]. Descriptive and evaluative accountsof research centres also have made more ancillary obser-vations regarding such potential interrelationships. Indescribing the strategies engaged by an academic nur-sing centre to increase productivity, Conn et al.remarked that beyond the designated purposes of theactivities they undertook, certain initiatives also helpedto enliven the local research culture [28]. Similarly, intheir reflections on developing geriatric nursing centresof excellence, Beverly et al. noted that centre partner-ships and skill-building programming served to boostcreativity and propel research in new directions [30].Huba et al., reporting on an evaluation of the aforemen-tioned centres, recognised that there was a ‘blended’quality to centre activities, in that they were multipur-pose and addressed multiple outcomes [29]. We ques-tion whether such interactions may partly explain whyresearch centre evaluation has proven problematic inmany cases [6,9,15,24]; there is value added by theserelationships that may go undetected or underestimated.We suggest that some of the difficulty in articulatingthese interrelationships may be rooted in the conflationof the contextual or structural features of researchenvironments and the research outcomes that they sup-port. In some instances, we find that discussions ofresearch centres often string together a range of traitsor activities that are arguably of different orders. Thatis, areas that might be outcomes of research centre activ-ities are aligned with elements that might be conceivedas centre structures or resources to support the researchprocess. For example, although Huba et al. acknowl-edged the multiple effects of centre activities, the keydomains of enhancement they examined spanned fromthose that might be more structural, such as meetings,trainings, and workshops, to what might be consideredintermediate outcomes, such as leveraging, and possiblyhigher order outcomes, such as improvements in patientcare [29]; yet, no meaningful distinctions were made. Inher framework for evaluating research capacity building,Cooke, while attempting to move beyond outcome mea-sures and to include process indicators, similarly incor-porated structural elements such as linkages andpartnerships along with more outcome-oriented dimen-sions, such as dissemination [25]. Langille et al., likewise,included ‘acquiring funds’ among their otherwise cate-gorically different essential research centre roles, such ascommunications and KT [22]. This enmeshment ofstructures and outcomes encumbers our potential tounpack the recursive ‘centre effect’. This is not to saythat outcomes do not reinforce or shape structures; cer-tainly they are linked. The distinction we hope to drawis between resources that support centre functioning(structures) and the outcomes resulting from the levelof centre functioning achieved, such as the capacity toeffectively leverage funds.In this paper, we develop a heuristic device to helpmove beyond some of these limitations. Drawing on acase analysis of NEXUS, a multidisciplinary healthresearch centre based at the University of BritishColumbia, Canada, we explore the potential for anexpanded conceptualisation of research infrastructure,one that specifies its largely assumed qualities whileextending to articulate the interactive relationshipsamong the tangible and intangible systems and struc-tures underlying centre functioning. Pincus et al., intheir report on a set of geriatric health care researchcentres, coined the concept centerischkeit to describe asense of “centeredness” that was cultivated through“structures that brought people together, gave them asense of belonging and worked to hold them together”(p. 281, emphasis added) [10]. Despite not having a phy-sical space, each centre achieved a degree of centerisch-keit through a range of organizational leadership tacticsand collaborative activities. Although Pincus et al. didnot go into detail about the specifics of centerischkeit,we aim to build on their idea and make such structuresexplicit.The making of a multidisciplinary research hub:NEXUSThe origins of NEXUS lie in the long-standing colla-borations of a group of eight investigators at the Univer-sity of British Columbia. Their work intersected toexamine the social contexts of health behaviour, arapidly expanding field that relies on bridging conceptsfrom the health and social sciences. The NEXUS colla-borators brought together their respective expertise innursing, medicine, psychology, history, statistics, sociol-ogy, geography, epidemiology, population and publichealth, and educational psychology. Having been extre-mely productive informally, the group explored ways tofurther advance their collective research agenda underthe leadership of three co-directors. In 2003, the BritishColumbia provincial funding body for health research,the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research(MSFHR), announced a new programme to fundresearch infrastructure to establish research centres. Theawards were designed to increase the productivity andcompetitiveness of researchers in the province. Fundingwas targeted to common services, including personnel,which would enhance the research environment, buildCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 3 of 10critical mass, and improve integration within theresearch groups.Refining their vision, the investigators submitted asuccessful application for an initial five years of funding- later extended by one year - to create NEXUS, a multi-disciplinary centre mandated to generate evidence toinform practice and policy through a critical analysis ofthe social contexts that create barriers to health, affecthealth seeking, and influence health system responses.The analytical lenses of gender, diversity, and place wereadopted as the overarching model for the NEXUSresearch agenda. Organisationally, the centre took shapeas what might be considered a hybrid of a co-locatedand virtual team [19]: research support staff, two of thethree directors, and several investigators were situatedin the same physical workplace, while the majority ofinvestigators maintained offices in their home depart-ments and universities. Intra-centre communicationswere a blend of virtual and face-to-face meetings.In its six-year lifetime, NEXUS uniquely supported theresearch capacity of 32 investigators from over a dozendisciplinary perspectives spanning the health and socialsciences and humanities and over 70 trainees. Investiga-tors represented a diverse group of researchers, policyand programme experts, and healthcare service provi-ders and clinicians. With less than $1 million (CAD) ininfrastructure investment, the centre leveraged over $12million (CAD) in nationally competitive grants in sup-port of its nationally and internationally recognised pro-grammes of research in tobacco and substance use,youth sexual health, rural and remote health, hearthealth, women’s and men’s health, and cancer preven-tion. Based on the cumulative evidence of this compre-hensive work, NEXUS implemented KT initiatives toimprove the health of communities in British Columbiaand elsewhere. NEXUS members were frequently soughtfor practice and policy input, including the commission-ing of special reports and media commentary.Despite its achievements, NEXUS was forced to closeabruptly in 2009 when its provincial funding source wasdiscontinued in a period of economic recession. Whenattempting to articulate the extent of this loss to gov-ernment and funding body representatives, it becamerapidly apparent that the consequences were not neatlycircumscribed within a definable radius of the initialfunding received; rather, certain features of the centrehad evolved far beyond the core dollars. Such structureswere complex and interlocking, and had been cultivatedthrough the additional inputs of time, creativity, and thereinvestment of learning; thus, accounting for their lossproved less clear-cut.Drawing on our experiences with NEXUS and currentliterature, we propose a relational conceptual frameworkfor research infrastructure that seeks to address andresolve these tensions. Our inductive analysis was car-ried out through a series of meetings held with theNEXUS directorate and research manager where weexamined annual centre reports, feedback from trainees,and interviews with investigators. To further our analy-sis, we critically reflected on our collective personalexperiences within NEXUS, compared and contrastedthese data with the literature, and used diagrams to cap-ture emerging themes and their relationships.Infrastructure: a relational conceptual frameworkThe conceptual framework we lay out is anchored in thecontention that infrastructure consists of various struc-tures that interactively create a composite greater thanthe sum of its parts (see Figure 1). We thus characterisethis framework as relational because it is the relation-ships between these elements that define the whole, notsimply the ingredients called for in the recipe. Whenfocusing on interrelationships what becomes clear isthat particular features of research centres take form asa result of an iterative, interactive process, and this formis not necessarily tangible. Instead, we see that moreabstruse collective structures, such as internal knowl-edge, culture, or identity - that may not be quantifiable- are nevertheless significant factors in centre success.This is precisely one of the core assertions of our frame-work: such features of research environments as cultureor identity are in effect resources upon which centremembers can draw in advancing the work. Theseaspects thus form part of the underlying structures(albeit social) that support research.Our model accordingly operates under the assumptionthat structures need not necessarily be material in nat-ure to exert concrete consequences; they may also bethe cumulative products of structure interactions that,in turn, feed back into the infrastructure montage. Thisbroader approach permits the valuation of infrastructurecomponents that may not be readily apparent in isola-tion; rather, once situated in relational context, we gaina wide-ranging picture of the interconnected and variedelements that underlie the collective functioning of thecentre. From this perspective it is possible to more com-prehensively account for the potential benefits of infra-structure funds, an important advantage forinvestigators drafting centre designs and for fundersseeking to gauge the impacts of their investment.While our framework problematises the structuresinternal to research centres, these clearly do not operatein isolation of wider contextual factors. Research centresare situated within particular academic environmentswithin particular places with varying political, social, andeconomic climates - which is also why there are limitsto the generalisability of this framework. We acknowl-edge these external factors, but fully exploring these isCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 4 of 10outside the scope of this paper (see Figure 1). In the fol-lowing sections we describe the rationale and functionsof each of the structural nodes - operational, synergistic,cumulative - and their various substructures in our fra-mework, punctuating these with examples from NEXUSand the literature where relevant.Operational baseBorrowing a term used by Langille et al. in relation toCanadian health promotion centres [22], we refer to thefoundational layer of our framework as the ‘operationalbase’. The operational base consists of the primarymaterial and human resources without which a centrewould not exist. It is typically supported by a pool ofcore funding, often from external competitive sources,as well as possibly in-kind contributions from a homeuniversity. The operational base necessarily sets thestage for the potential development of the other struc-tural nodes in our framework; if the operational base isjeopardised by, for example, funding uncertainty, otherelements of centre infrastructure may waver, or noteven have the opportunity to develop. Thus, while a keyside of our argument in this paper is that infrastructureis more complex than purely materialist definitionsallow, there is a crucial level of resources required toinitiate and maintain - at the very least - a basic level ofcentre functioning. Needless to say, productivity is sub-optimal at such a minimum state [19].The operational base can be thought of as consistingof several subcomponents. The directorate provides cen-tre leadership, including governance and decision-mak-ing guidance. The investigative team consists of thechief or principal investigators who lead and performthe research. Material resources comprise the physicalFigure 1 A relational conceptual framework for multidisciplinary health research centre infrastructure.§. § Note: The contextual featuresand processes noted in the shaded area of the figure are indicated only insofar as to situate the roles of infrastructure within a broader context,and to acknowledge that infrastructure development is shaped by a range of factors. This model does not endeavour to address the intricaciesof these complex external factors.Coen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 5 of 10inputs, such as physical office space or cybertechnology,or equipment and supplies and services [2]. By nature,centres benefit from spin-off economies of scale inresource sharing [5,6,9,16,17]. In terms of humanresources, core staff members provide research andadministrative support, and may include a researchmanager to oversee project coordination and facilitatefunding grant preparation, an administrator to stream-line collaboration logistics, and an in-house statisticianor other types of analysts or technicians to facilitate thework [2]. Research support enables investigators to allo-cate more time for research and dissemination therebyincreasing centre productivity [2,28], but it may alsoallow a centre to pursue other objectives linked to itsmandate. At NEXUS, for example, research support staffenhanced centre workflow by facilitating grant prepara-tion and daily centre management, thereby releasingcore investigators to concentrate on advancing theresearch agenda. In addition, they helped to develop andimplement KT initiatives, learning opportunities pro-gramming, and training activities, among other endea-vours. Together, these operational structures create afoundation for the intermediate layer of our framework,synergistic structure, to which we turn now.Synergistic structureSynergistic structure consists of programming, lin-kages, and activities that may or may not be supporteddirectly by core infrastructure funding. We characterisethese features in structural terms because they serve toexpand the resource pool from which a centre candraw in both undertaking research and fulfilling itsmandate; they are routinised, embedded, and integralto centre functioning, and developed and improvedupon over time. These structures are marked as syner-gistic because they collectively serve to cultivate a vari-ety of interactions among centre members, as well asbetween the centre and wider groups and individuals.In describing the benefits of research centres, formerdirector of the United States’ National Science Founda-tion, Erich Bloch pointed to the “power of interaction”generated by centre activities such as seminars andjournal clubs (p. 374) [31]. It is due to this interactivequality that the synergistic structure is positioned asan intermediate layer between the operational base andthe cumulative structure; it performs a crucial liaisingfunction by mobilising the material inputs availed bythe operational base to nourish the broader collectiveattributes and development of the centre. As describedabove, the extent of synergistic structure achieved -and the resulting potential for cumulative structure - isultimately determined by the strength of the opera-tional base; a poorly functioning base cannot supportenduring derivatives.Although each of the synergistic components are dis-cussed separately below, their outcomes are interdepen-dent and multiple. Each element contributes inoverlapping ways to the generation of horizontal bene-fits, in terms of synergistic co-structures dialecticallyshaping each other, and vertical benefits, by feeding intoa centre’s cumulative structure, addressed in the nextsection. Several authors writing about research capacitybuilding and research centre development have anecdo-tally noted these links both within the synergistic stra-tum, such as partnerships stimulating the developmentof new learning opportunities [30], as well as into thecumulative sphere, such as training activities drivingcentre culture [28] or communications fostering centreidentity [22].CommunicationsCommunications encompass the scope of strategies forinternal centre engagement, as well as relations with thewider public, stakeholders, and media. The communica-tions products of centres, such as websites, newsletters,press releases or briefings, and other electronic media[10,15,22,28], are important centre resources for broad-casting to outside audiences, as well as creating internalcontinuity and a sense of community. At NEXUS, regu-lar newsletters, an active website profiling member andcentre activities, and press releases, where relevant, weremainstays of centre communications that dually sup-ported internal connectivity and external exposure.Newsletters and the website helped to promote NEXUSevents and programming to NEXUS members and thepublic, to spotlight members’ achievements and centreaccomplishments to the scientific community and fun-ders, and to maintain and create new links with traineealumni or relevant organisations. In addition, the colla-borative and supportive content and tone of NEXUScommunications reinforced and nurtured a collaborativecentre culture. This also solidified a shared identityamong members and enhanced the NEXUS reputationexternally. (For examples of NEXUS communications,please visit https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/13805.)Learning opportunities programmingThe literature cites a wide range of research-relatedactivities enacted to bring together centre members forboth formal and informal exchanges, including seminars,retreats, institutes, journal clubs, and other symposia[2,4,9,10,30]. Such programming is beneficial in stimu-lating ideas for innovation and new research directions[cf. [9,30]] and to more broadly cultivate a particularresearch culture and centre identity [9], explored in-depth in the next section. Such activities become sys-tematised as part of a mode of operation for a researchcentre by providing regular spaces for creativity andconnectivity. Learning programming at NEXUS includeda seminar series, annual conferences, research posterCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 6 of 10sessions, and other events. These activities providedopportunities for students, junior investigators, andmore established researchers to interact, present, andshare their research, to explore new research directions,and to advance and refine centre models and conceptuallenses (discussed below). Importantly, they also createda platform for the centre identity and culture to grow,adapt, and evolve along with the lifecycles of researchprojects and the ever-expanding team.Training and mentorshipTraining is particularly crucial in terms of its contribu-tions to the development of in-house social and techni-cal human capital and the transmission of learning andthe values that contribute to centre culture [22,32], twodimensions of cumulative structure described below.Concretely, this component might include formal train-ing, such as practical skill-building workshops or mockexternal review panels [2,10,22,30], informal mentoringby way of supporting junior investigators and fosteringlinks between students and faculty [2,10,32], or tangiblesupport such as seed funding [2,9]. Heitkemper et al., inexploring how the Center for Women’s Health andGender Research at the University of Washington (Uni-ted States) was able to expand its interdisciplinaryresearch, identified training and mentorship activities askey to their success [2].Trainees at NEXUS benefited from access to tangibleresources such as funding for specialised training or tra-vel to present at scientific conferences, as well as investi-gator-led skills-based workshops, and the broaderNEXUS learning opportunities programming detailedabove. Member profiles on the NEXUS website and fre-quent reports of trainee successes in NEXUS newslettershelped trainees to further capitalise on their affiliationwith the centre by providing outlets to communicatetheir research to various audiences. Importantly, severaltrainees later became members of the NEXUS investiga-tive team, further strengthening the centre’s operationalbase. In addition, many alumni maintained close rela-tions with the centre in their subsequent positions withother community-based or research-oriented healthorganisations, helping to expand the scope of NEXUSsynergistic structure by introducing other related groupsinto the collaborative fold.Partnerships and networksPartnerships and networks, formal and informal, aresocial structures that facilitate the undertaking ofresearch, provide channels to new opportunities, and sti-mulate the development of other synergistic compo-nents [29,30]. Enduring over time, such relationshipsmay become part of the permanent infrastructure of acentre [2,29]. This structure may be particularly impor-tant for enabling other synergistic features, such as KTinitiatives that seek to reach audiences outside academia.The partnerships and networks that NEXUS devel-oped over time with other organisations and individuals- including NEXUS trainee alumni - created valuablechannels for research collaborations and dissemination,as well as crucial research-policy and research-practicelinkages. For example, based on a long-standing pro-gramme of NEXUS research on families and tobaccouse, NEXUS pilot-tested, produced, and disseminated aresource to help co-habiting couples reduce or stopsmoking in conjunction with government health agen-cies, local addictions research centres, pregnancy out-reach programmes, and other organisations.Knowledge translation (KT) and public outreachEffective channels for KT and public outreach are essen-tial for meeting the mandated objectives of manyresearch centres and ultimately facilitating the all-impor-tant goal of translating research into impact.Approaches may include focusing on the developmentof best practices [2,29], directing research productstoward non-academic communities [2,22,29], holdingevents and meetings to share research with target audi-ences [15,22], and engaging with the media [22]. Thesestructures are formative of centre identity by increasingexternal visibility to diverse audiences [2].KT initiatives and public engagement activities becameintegral assets of the NEXUS research environment, con-necting NEXUS research with various audiences andknowledge stakeholders. For example, while individualprojects within the centre frequently employed project-specific KT strategies to communicate research findingsand develop evidence-based health promotion tools, thecentre also held public events on topics of popular inter-est. These activities provided a valuable platform for pub-lic engagement with research and allowed NEXUS todemonstrate the relevance of its work, showcase a rangeof NEXUS projects, and helped to establish a publicimage, a point we come back to below. Partnerships andnetworks, as discussed above, as well as other synergisticfeatures, such as communications, enabled these endea-vours to be developed and successfully executed.Models and conceptual lensesModels and lenses are the conceptual glue of a centre,consisting of the overarching analytical approaches orperspectives adopted to determine what is in line with acentre’s mandate and what is out. It is the models andlenses that add cohesion and guide centre projects andactivities. They may be refined and adapted over time.Besides this primary role, models and conceptual lensescan be instrumental resources in themselves by helpingto brand a centre. At NEXUS, the gender-place-diversitytriad became a trademark of NEXUS research thathelped to further position the niche socio-contextualfocus of the centre within the health research commu-nity. As such, the NEXUS lenses were not only essentialCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 7 of 10in advancing and unifying the NEXUS research agenda,but also became an important mechanism for enhancingexternal visibility and in establishing the NEXUS iden-tity. Gender-place-diversity became a useful instrumentthat NEXUS investigators brought to bear in their dis-cussions and work in other contexts.Cumulative structureThis summative layer of our framework is a cumulativeproduct of the ongoing interactions of the operationalbase and synergistic structure over time; it cannot existindependently of these antecedent structures. Accord-ingly, cumulative structure is manifest only at the aggre-gate level and is not reducible to smaller scales orattributable to specific substructures; it is a property ofthe collective. In this way, cumulative structure can beseen as analogous to concepts developed and adapted tounderstand neighbourhood social structures and contex-tual effects, such as collective social functioning orsocial capital [33,34]. Cumulative structure is similarlyimbued with a ‘public good’ quality in that its benefitsare centre-wide [33,35]. NEXUS, for example, benefitedfrom its cache of in-house expertise, a highly reputedgroup identity, and a research culture conducive toachieving centre objectives.This cumulative node uniquely completes a valuablefeedback loop in centre functioning: it is continuallyshaped by and shapes the preceding layers. It is throughthis iterative cycling that centre infrastructure is able toremain relevant and continue to meet evolving centredemands. Structures disconnected from these flows -such as a partnership ‘out of sync’ with centre culture -stagnate, and their utility is greatly diminished. In addi-tion to these important recursive functions, these cumu-lative components are resources in their own rightyielding concrete benefits in support of research out-comes, such as leveraging an affiliation with a high cali-bre centre in support of a funding application. Despitethese crucial roles, it is precisely this type of infrastruc-ture that is exceptionally difficult to accurately valuategiven that it is interactively generated over time.Research cultureWe contend that research culture - the values andnorms that both guide how research is undertaken andhow components in the operational and synergisticlevels are engaged - is a species of centre social struc-ture. When positioned relationally with other infrastruc-ture components, it becomes clear how research culturefits into the backbone of centre functioning. Synergisticcomponents, such as seminars, provide the channels forreification of centre culture, which in turn shapes thenature of operational and synergistic development.At a very practical level, research culture is a forceshaping collaborative behaviour and thus the functioningof a centre [9,22,28]. Looking to the organizational beha-viour literature, it is clear that in some cases culture is asource of sustained competitive advantage [36]. Indeed,organisational culture is postulated to affect the extent towhich creativity and innovation are stimulated [37].Learning to work together, the centre’s modus operandi,is a feature of the centre itself, learned and developedover time through the overall compilation of centreundertakings. Another aspect of culture, however, ismore difficult to pinpoint. According to Mallon, engagingthe words of one of his interviewees, a key benefit ofmembership in a research centre can be best described as“a spiritual notion, a sense of creativity, of intellectualexcitement, of ‘the feeling that anything is possible’” (p.506) [9]. Achieving such a stimulating culture is surely animportant driver for innovative health research.For NEXUS, a culture that promoted non-hierarchicalcollaboration, egalitarian and participatory decisionmaking, and mutual support was integral to its success.Aspects of synergistic structure, such as training andmentorship - by for example being inclusive of traineesin the centre community and privileging junior investi-gators where possible - critically shaped this feature ofthe research environment.Centre identityAccording to Youtie et al., self-recognition or internalidentification is one of the minimal conditions for aresearch centre [17]. Centre identity encompasses notonly scientific reputation, credibility, visibility, and lea-dership, but also the shared sense of identity experi-enced by centre members. The types of activities - orrather synergistic structure - enacted by a centre maywork to promote or consolidate a particular centre iden-tity [2,14,29]. Time is also a key ingredient, as well ascommon ground or goals [19].Centre identity is an especially valuable resource inthe knowledge-to-action process; a high calibre researchidentity may afford researchers greater capacity to influ-ence relevant stakeholders, and stakeholders may referto the centre for expert consultation. An identity mayalso be advantageous for gaining access to new opportu-nities, such as prestigious positions [2,29]. A meritoriousresearch identity may be favourably leveraged by centremembers for tangible returns, including funding orawards, time, space, resources, or access to research par-ticipant pools [2,14,29]. At a more ethereal level, sharingin a particular research identity may provide researcherswith a sense of belonging [9,10] or a ‘ready-made affinitygroup’ [9], effectively strengthening the collaborativeproject. In the case of NEXUS, for example, beyond theobvious benefits of affiliation with a well-reputed centre,the NEXUS identity helped to cultivate an intellectualhome for a geographically and disciplinarily diffusegroup of members.Coen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 8 of 10Social and technical human capitalIn addition to creating economies of scale for materialresources, the organisational structure of a research cen-tre also inherently creates economies of scale in knowl-edge and skills by way of bringing together uniquecombinations of expertise [4,5,17], with public good-likebenefits [4]. This notion is echoed across the researchcentre literature, with many citing the benefits of con-centrating knowledge and expertise [2,14,22,27,29,32]and social capital in research centres [22]. Bozeman andCorley in their work on developing evaluations forscience and technology projects and programmes, advo-cate the concept of social and technical human capitalto inclusively describe “the sum of skills, knowledge,and social relations needed to participate in science” (p.601) [[4], see also [23]]. Social and technical humancapital brings together the notions of social capital andhuman capital to provide a way to think about the var-ious forms of capital harnessed by the collection of indi-viduals within a scientific consortium, and how theseoperate at a contextual level. One of the key thrusts ofthis concept is that the scientific capabilities of specia-lised research centres cannot possibly reside within asingular scientist. As a collective research centre attri-bute, social and technical human capital is a vital struc-tural component for advancing the research agenda of acentre. Particular types of collaborative researcharrangements, including those that are interdisciplinary,have accordingly been shown to enhance social andtechnical human capital [13]. It is as sources of socialand technical human capital that research centres maybe well-angled to influence policy and practice [2]. Theunique combinations of intra-centre skills and expertiseat NEXUS undoubtedly enabled the expansion of lone-grant projects into long-standing programmes ofresearch and the rapid mobilisation of centre personnelto develop new investigations in response to criticalemergent research areas, and to respond to targeted orcatalyst research funding opportunities.ConclusionsWe have made the case in this paper for an expandedconceptualisation of multidisciplinary health researchcentre infrastructure, one that envisions infrastructureas a relational construct comprised of multiple andinteractive parts. In the case of NEXUS, it is clear that arange of centre features together enabled the collabora-tion, innovation, learning, and excellence that charac-terised the high-level functioning of the centre. Thestructures comprising the NEXUS research environmentwere not mutually exclusive, but instead interdependentand overlapping in their contributions to centre success.By attending to these relationships, more comprehensiveappraisals of the structures involved in supportingresearch are possible. While beyond the scope of thispaper, there are a range of evaluation frameworks thatmay prove helpful in developing the metrics and under-standing the levers of centre performance [cf. [24]]. Wesuggest that our framework provides valuable points ofreference for centre evaluations that are more attunedto the processes involved in multidisciplinary healthresearch and the micro social contexts in which it isconducted.An important caveat about our framework is thatthere is clearly no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution; strategiesfor centre success are context-contingent [17,27]. Thispaper is based on a particular case study and does notclaim to be readily transposable across research environ-ments, including biomedical settings. A critical angle forfuture empirical work will be to investigate the widercontextual factors that influence research centre life.The fate of NEXUS, for example, was dictated by a pro-vincial government budget deficit and subsequent rea-lignment of government spending priorities. Eventhough one key benefit of research centres is their capa-city to react quickly to such contextual changes, includ-ing societal demands for knowledge and new fundingopportunities [9,11,15], sustainability remains anongoing dilemma [15]. Lack of formal exit plans maylead to centre inertia, whereby organisations continue toexist past their point of scientific and social relevance[5,9]. Such work might shed light on the developmentaltrajectories of research centres within specific researchfunding systems. Indeed, a key question moving forwardwill be how research centres can develop sustainabilitystrategies that are contextually-sensitive, allowing crea-tive options for existing infrastructure to be translatedor transformed before it is altogether discarded.A relational framework thus broadens the lens forviewing the elements underlying centre functioning andaccommodates less traditionally considered composi-tions. First, conventional ‘hardware’ notions of infra-structure arguably favour biomedical requirements forexpensive instrumentation and technology; multidisci-plinary health research centres incorporating socialscience perspectives may not call for comparable physi-cal inputs. By incorporating time-contingent compo-nents and social structures, our framework accounts forthe complexities of multidisciplinary research settings inparticular [3,23]. Second, with the increasing emergenceof virtual research centres [9,19,20], our conceptualisa-tion provides a way forward in thinking about centreinfrastructure independent of co-located workspace andfacilities. A chief strength of our framework is that itallows for more inclusive consideration of the diversityof forms that multidisciplinary research centres mani-fest, addressing a key limitation cited in critiques of cen-tre design and evaluation. This expanded scope, as weCoen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 9 of 10have suggested here, opens the door for developing newmodels to inform the theoretical basis for centre designto help guide the development of new research centresor reinvigorate existing ones.AcknowledgementsWe are grateful for the infrastructure support provided to NEXUS by theMichael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR). Pam Ratner holdsan MSFHR Senior Scholar Award. The views expressed herein are notnecessarily endorsed by MSFHR.Author details1School of Nursing, University of British Columbia, 302-6190 Agronomy Road,Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T 1Z3, Canada. 2Institute for Healthy Livingand Chronic Disease Prevention, University of British Columbia Okanagan,3333 University Way, Kelowna, British Columbia, V1V 1V7, Canada.Authors’ contributionsAll authors were involved in conceptualising the framework and contributedto the text of this paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.Authors’ informationJLB, JLJ, and PAR were founders and co-directors of NEXUS. SEC was theresearch manager for NEXUS in the 2008-2009 period until its closing.Competing interestsThe authors declare that they have no competing interests.Received: 27 February 2010 Accepted: 6 October 2010Published: 6 October 2010References1. 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Washington, DC:Brookings Institution Press; 1999:241-292.36. Barney JB: Organizational culture: can it be a source of sustainedcompetitive advantage? The Academy of Management Review 1986,11(3):656-665.37. Martins EC, Terblanche F: Building organisational culture that stimulatescreativity and innovation. European Journal of Innovation Management2003, 6(1):64-74.doi:10.1186/1478-4505-8-29Cite this article as: Coen et al.: A relational conceptual framework formultidisciplinary health research centre infrastructure. Health ResearchPolicy and Systems 2010 8:29.Coen et al. Health Research Policy and Systems 2010, 8:29http://www.health-policy-systems.com/content/8/1/29Page 10 of 10


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