Research Management – What has it ever done for us?

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When I tell people that I work in research management, I often get a blank look. The alternative is to tell them I’m a Chartered Accountant, which is equally true, but also doesn’t work too well as a conversation starter at parties. So I often find it easiest just to say I’m a consultant who works with universities and leave it at that.

It’s got me thinking, though, about what how best to articulate the role and value of research management. This is not just a matter of idle conversation, but often a real challenge for research managers trying to explain the benefits they bring to their own researchers and institutions. Of course, most professional support services in universities tend to be viewed by staff elsewhere in the institutions as a necessary evil at best, especially where such services are centralised. Nevertheless, it is often easier for the casual observer to understand what finance, human resources, student services or estates departments actually ‘do’, than for them to penetrate the arcane world of research management.

A recent presentation I attended summarised the role of research managers as:

  1. Getting funding
  2. Utilising funding as best as possible
  3. Maximising outputs

While all of this is true, it doesn’t answer the question of what makes research management a professional activity rather than simply administration. And rather like Jewish attitudes to the Romans in the famous Monty Python sketch, to claim that we secure funding, make sure it’s used properly and maximise outputs may very well be met with a roll of the eyes, and the response, ‘Yes of course, but apart from that?’.

If we can’t create a compelling definition of what research management actually involves, and why it is more than just administration, this naturally begs the question of why universities need research managers at all. Surely research should be managed by researchers, not ‘jumped-up administrators’, some might say? If even government accepts that politicians shouldn’t meddle in research (in accordance with the Haldane Principle), what gives university managers the right to do so?

In reality, the separation of political and academic decision-making in research has never been as clear-cut as advocates of the Haldane principle might wish, as James Sumner has explained in a recent article. In the same way, the roles of academic and non-academic staff in the effective management of research are closely, and rightly, intertwined.

In my view, professional research managers have a crucial part to play in modern research, for the following reasons.

1. Sustaining the case for public funding of research

While it might seem self-evident to some, at a time of economic austerity the case for continuing to spend billions of pounds of public funds on research must be continually restated. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills will be spending £5.8 billion on research next year, the lion’s share of which will flow to universities. Add to this spending on research by other government departments (the Department of Health alone spends nearly £1bn on research), charities, industry and the European Commission and it quickly becomes clear that research is ‘big business’. For universities, the quality of their research is also the single most important determinant of league table performance, which is in turn a key factor in student recruitment.

The problem is that while a business can point to its bottom line as evidence of its performance, it is very hard to measure the value of public spending on research, as Professor Stephen Curry has recently observed. A 2013 study for BIS by Elsevier, for example, suggested that the UK continues to punch above its weight in terms articles and citation outputs, but the benefits this brings to the economy and society at large are much less clear-cut. While there are many articulate, engaged members of the academic community who can make the case for the public funding of research, there are others who struggle to identify and demonstrate the applications and benefit of their work. In such case, research managers can help bridge the gap, helping to capture and express the value of academic research in terms the public (and Her Majesty’s Treasury) are more likely to understand.

2. Acting as an honest broker

When we consider how research actually takes place in the 21st century, it also becomes clear why good management is so important. In short, research has become increasingly complex, costly and multidisciplinary. The problems researchers are seeking to solve no longer map neatly to academic disciplines, and projects frequently span disciplinary, geographical and cultural. In his book ‘Improving your Research Management’, Professor Allan M. Johnson notes the importance of ‘inter-group leadership’ and ‘boundary-spanning’ in research leadership. Often the institutional research manager is able to do his or her job effectively precisely because they are not affiliated to any single discipline or department. The ability to act as an ‘honest broker’ can be essential in bringing together researchers across or within institutions – especially where the incentive of external funding is there to help oil the wheels.

3. Balancing the need to collaborate and compete

One of the things I love about working in the HE sector is that there is a fundamental willingness to share information and work together. Ultimately I think this is a spill over from the academic commitment to collegiality, collaboration and knowledge-sharing (or put another way, the fact that research is a public good, and therefore ‘non-rivalrous’ and ‘non-excludable’). Yet let us not kid ourselves that this means researchers are not competitive when it comes to their own careers and reputations. Some of the most difficult situations I had to deal with as a research manager came where collaborations had broken down, and PhD students and early career researchers found themselves caught in the crossfire between competing investigators. The skills needed to successfully negotiating a landscape of bruised egos and professional pride in order to see an effective collaboration emerge cannot be under-estimated.

At institutional level there is also fierce competition to recruit the best researchers, to access the largest and most prestigious grants, and garner the best reputation. The ability of good research managers to spot the right funding opportunity, to position an institution to play to its strengths, to develop the best researchers and, yes, to ‘play the game’ as effectively as possible when it comes to REF, outcomes reporting and league tables can be invaluable to an institution.

4. Meeting the challenge of accountability and reporting

In the space of a few short years the accountability burden on researchers has grown tremendously. Research managers have long played a part in ensuring compliance with funder and regulatory requirements on use of funds, staff employment, ethics, insurance and clinical governance. These days, they must do all this, but must also help researchers demonstrate measurable outcomes and impact from the research itself. Funders and institutions are becoming increasingly mindful of the role metrics can play in evaluating research (hence HEFCE’s independent review of the subject), and even the role of social media, or “altmetrics”, is garnering intense interest. Add in the requirements for data management plans, the storage issues presented by big data, the pressure for increased equipment sharing and open access to research publications, and the need for effective management is clear.

5. Bringing professional skills to bear

Finally, research managers can bring to bear the professional skills that are increasingly needed to negotiate the complex world of modern research. Lawyers, accountants and IT professionals are well established within the research management fold, while individuals with expertise in bid development, policy-making, researcher training, technology commercialisation, research analytics and outcomes reporting can now be found in most large research organisations.

Encouragingly, research management is slowly but surely emerging as a profession in its own right. In the UK, much of the progress in recent years can be traced back to John Green and David Langley’s 2009 report Professionalising Research Management. This is still well a worth read, and the fact it remains largely still relevant highlights how much remains to be done. The Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) is playing a crucial role in changing things, recently launching the first nationally accredited professional qualification in research management. Last week’s ARMA conference in Blackpool brought together over 500 delegates from around the country and beyond, and is itself testament to the value placed on professional research management.

Research management – what has it ever done for us?

So, apart from getting funding, using it in full and maximising outputs, what has research management ever done for university researchers? I hope the above provides a few answers next time this question rears its head, but am sure there is much more that I have missed, so all comments are gratefully received.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be reflecting further in these blog posts on what makes research management different to other forms of management, and some of the key challenges faced by research managers today.

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