To recruit and retain researchers, universities can join forces

Tim Softley, Peter Schiffer and Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela explain the benefits of a transatlantic partnership

April 16, 2016

Top universities use their critical mass of high-quality academics to educate widely, deliver the best research and contribute to the public good. They forge research and education partnerships with other universities and other collaborators, and seek to make the most of areas of shared interest and excellence.

However, the pursuit of excellence brings significant challenges for any university. Academic institutions around the globe are remarkably similar when it comes to recruiting top talent: they all seek to hire the best and brightest to deliver world-class research and education; and they all look for support systems to enable their professional development throughout their careers.

At the University of Birmingham and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we are building on an existing research partnership to develop an innovative new programme to nurture young faculty members, equipping high-potential young researchers to contribute to research excellence at our respective institutions.

Our two universities have been working together for more than six years and in 2014 we signed a strategic agreement, known as the BRIDGE (BiRmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery EnGagement and Education) Alliance, to strengthen our research and teaching links.

Our new BRIDGE fellowship programme is specifically designed to bring together international research teams in the UK and US to investigate areas including ageing, diversity, transport, brain trauma and family genetics. Fellows will spend three years building their research focus, developing professional connections and acquiring knowledge of the international research landscape: a critical foundation for tackling society’s grand challenges.

As in any field, the most talented researchers certainly will have choices. Obviously, the reputation and profile of the institution in one’s field of research is critical, but we believe that our new programme offers three important incentives:

Long-term employment stability

At the end of the programme, successful fellows are assured an academic lecturer’s post at Birmingham. The stability that comes with a permanent post benefits the academic on a personal level, and giving them the space and time early in their career to focus on their research provides a platform for building networks and securing research funding.

Visionary support

BRIDGE researchers will understand the bigger picture of their research, which will have a global dimension. Developing this vision requires looking beyond one’s own country and developing an international profile – particularly in Europe and the US. They may need to test their research hypotheses and paradigms in the different environments provided by different countries.

Potential for impact

The BRIDGE programme offers research opportunities that align with the great challenges of our times. Almost all researchers do valuable work that contributes to human knowledge and enhances the common good. But our programme supports research on a global scale, addressing the biggest issues faced by governments.

We hope that by developing a research offer that includes these factors we will greatly enhance our chances of attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent, who we expect to deliver world-leading research over the years to come.

That’s the grand vision, but what does it mean in practical terms?  Fellows spend one year in residence at Illinois. Conducting research in both the UK and the US provides researchers with different physical, social, cultural, educational and economic environments in which to test and apply their research hypotheses and paradigms. The opportunities for comparative studies in the two countries are applicable to all the research areas adopted for the BRIDGE Fellowships programme and bring a new dimension to the fellows’ research programme. 

The division of the fellowship period between the two countries allows the researchers to become used to the different research cultures in the US and the UK and to understand the funding mechanisms and other drivers of research performance. Such experience may not be easy to come by in the early stages of a research career, and these years should serve BRIDGE fellows well as they begin developing a global presence. Furthermore, deep links to two different universities will build a network of support that can be essential to the success of early-career researchers.

In launching the BRIDGE fellowships, we believe that we have created a unique programme that will help us to meet the increasing challenge of recruiting and retaining the very best research talent while also strengthening the ties between our institutions. By pooling our common research interests and strengths, we seek to make the most of areas of shared interest and excellence, ultimately delivering the best research and contributing to the global good.

Tim Softley is pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham. Peter Schiffer is vice-chancellor for research and Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela is vice-provost for international affairs and global strategies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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