A resilient and optimistic community: My first time at the ARMA conference, Belfast 2019

By Victoria Ficarra, 25/06/19

On Sunday 16th June, I boarded a small plane heading to Belfast with my colleagues, Rob Johnson and Mattia Fosci. Our destination was the 2019 ARMA Conference, which this year explored the themes of ‘prosperity and resilience in research management.’ It was my first time attending a conference on research management and I was feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness, not knowing what to expect but looking forward to finding out.

The conference hosted over 600 attendees with 144 high-profile speakers who presented engaging and informative sessions around the themes of prosperity and resilience. In total there were 66 sessions on a vast range of topics, such as research ethics, research impact, research development, international partnerships, and Open Access. Choosing which sessions to attend was difficult, so I decided to prioritise the sessions on Open Access (OA) as it’s a topic I have worked on and am particularly interested in.

Open Access in research management

I attended three sessions on the topic of OA:

  • UKRI’s Open Access Review led by Rachel Bruce and Claire Fraser
  • Towards making full and immediate Open Access a reality: the future of Open Access policy led by Chris Banks, Steve Byford, Valerie McCutcheon and David Sweeney
  • Open Access Special Interest Group led by Valerie McCutcheon

As observed by Valerie McCutcheon, the existence of more OA events at ARMA this year than in previous years was in itself interesting. This could be indicative of a growing awareness of the move towards OA brought about by Plan S. Or perhaps even suggests a growing concern felt by the research management community over the progression of OA policy and what this means for their institutions.

The key developments that were discussed were UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) OA policy, which is set to be launched in March 2020, and Coalition Plan S, which recently published its updated guidance. In light of these developments, speakers were keen to discuss Plan S (and, more generally, OA’s direction of travel) with the research management community. That, to me, makes perfect sense since research managers, alongside their library colleagues, are the ones who will be faced with the challenge of implementing the new policy requirements and can be caught between a rock (the funders) and a hard place (unreceptive researchers)…

For many audience members and a few speakers, there were of course some concerns about the effect of OA – but overall there was an optimism that these concerns could be resolved with a collaborative effort moving forward. A point that I think was well highlighted by our associate, Ian Carter, is that there is a need to focus less on the stick of compliance and more on a rewards-based approach.

Our session on LMIC’s

On Monday afternoon, Research Consulting gave a presentation on building research partnerships in low- and medium-income countries (LMICs). The presentation took the form of a Q&A session between Rob and Dr Therina Theron, president elect of Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA). Rob presented some findings from our Strengthening Research Innovation in Africa project for the UK Department for International Development assessing the research needs of seven Sub-Saharan African countries, looking at ways to strengthen their research systems. Whereas Therina presented the perspective of LMIC research managers, highlighting their challenges setting up collaborations with partners in Europe and North America and giving practical recommendations on how to work collaboratively.

One of the most interesting things I learnt is just how hard it is for overstretched LMIC research managers to comply with all the requirements set by funders and universities in the UK, and how little time they have to deal with all of the requests. The key message was that successful partnerships come from successful relationships, and research managers should invest time in understanding the unique needs and circumstances of their partners. I think the message went down well with a very engaged (and very packed) room of attendees!

Rob Johnson and Dr Therina Theron presenting their session on research partnerships with LMICs at ARMA 2019

Another conference highlight

Another highlight of ARMA 2019 was a humorous session on bad science and the manipulation of statistical evidence led by Dr Ben Goldacre, a British physician, academic and science writer. In leading us through a number of statistical errors reported by major news outlets and organisations, Ben highlighted how the misuse of statistics by those in power can lead to unfounded claims and bad decisions. In Ben’s words, ‘If you torture the data hard enough, it will confess to anything’.

However, what I found most engaging about Ben’s session was his focus on clinical trial data. Taking the opportunity with a large variety of universities present (nearly all of which who will have carried out clinical trials), Ben talked through his own initiative, Alltrials, and brought light to the issue of unreported clinical research data and how this prevents the progression of medicine. This was interesting to me as it highlighted even more so the prevalence of a move towards open data.

Final thoughts

Overall my experience at ARMA was a wholly positive one and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I learnt a lot about the research environment and gained particular insight into some of the concerns that universities have about the move towards full and immediate OA.

In a time of formidable change with issues such as Plan S and Brexit, the research management community faces a high amount of pressure. However, as I think Melanie Jones’ session on positive introspection highlighted, through creating further support in the community, these challenges can be faced together.

Fundamentally, I got the impression that the research management community is resilient and well equipped to deal with these emerging challenges and opportunities. This resilience and indeed, optimism of the research community is clearly illustrated by Vivienne Stern’s opening ARMA mantra: “Never waste a good crisis!”