Accentuate the team

February 14, 1997

Keep research apart from teaching - and solve the short-term contract dilemma at one stroke, suggest William Solesbury and Janet Lewis

Short-term contracts are not just bad for the careers of university researchers, they are also bad for the quality of research.

Some universities are now improving their employment practices. Active management of both financial and human resources is needed. But can this be achieved in universities when research is largely a part-time activity?

To a large degree, university research is done by junior staff on short-term contracts, and run by senior staff as a part-time activity. This practice is deeply rooted in an academic belief that research and teaching are mutually supportive. But there is little compelling evidence of this supposed synergy between teaching and research. Individual polymathic academics are equally good at both and in some institutional structures a close association of teaching and research may pay off. But both are exceptions.

In most fields of the natural and the social sciences, and in some of the humanities too, it is teams that do most good research. The importance of teams in research renders otiose the whole debate about whether or not to create a super-league of research universities.

There are a number of reasons for the rise of teamwork in research. One is the expanded ambition of research to address more and more complex natural and social phenomena. Another is the high investment needed in many fields, enforcing a search for economics of scale. Research is also increasingly carried out in a context of application and draws on heterogeneous skills, brought together in transient associations. This is certainly how research is done in businesses, in non-profit enterprises, and in public sector research establishments.

Universities know what a competitive business research has become. Can academic research, run with short-term workers and by part-time bosses, often with little management expertise, succeed in this competitive world?

A positive response is the creation of research centres and institutes in universities. These already exist, although their number is unrecorded. They offer ready access to shared resources of infrastructure and information, the provision of necessary academic, technical, and administrative support for research, and a locale for teamwork. In short, a setting that both stimulates and sustains intellectual endeavour.

Effective research centres must meet two preconditions if they are to compete and survive. They should be run as autonomous enterprises and have resources invested in their management.

Some research centres might want to cut loose from the university, becoming independent research businesses operating on a for-profit or not-for-profit basis. Most would probably remain within the university. As such they might purchase payroll and accommodation services from the university and contract to provide teaching or supervision. But the funding would be transparent. The centres themselves would be freer to pursue their research ambitions, to bid for external income, to organise and manage the centre in pursuit of their purposes.

Properly managed research centres would be able to take a more considered view of the employment conditions of their staff and would recognise the importance of providing a greater degree of security. It might be appropriate still to employ some staff on short-term contracts, although experience in the wider research world suggests that junior staff usually stay only two or three years anyway. Turnover could therefore still be achieved if staff were employed on normal terms and conditions and such arrangements would also allow the possibility of careers in research. As autonomous enterprises, the incentive to succeed would also be there to encourage investment in the development of research management skills.

Academics who wished to be active in both research and teaching could contract some of their time - on a weekly, termly, yearly or longer basis - to a research centre, which would not have to be in the same university where they teach. Their teaching colleagues might also take any sabbatical leave in a research centre. The key change is that the arrangement would need to be negotiated and would be transparent.

Although such centres would be better able to attract contract research, they should not be cut off from other forms of research funding. They would become the main recipients of research council and charity funding and also be in a stronger position to bid for the bigger, longer-term programme funding. Research funders would be expected to pay the costs of project work, including the necessary contribution to the management costs of the centre but not to the overheads of the university as a whole.

Would the funding councils' allocations to universities for research still be appropriate? Such funds are meant for investment in the research infrastructure and support of curiosity-driven, basic research. They will still be needed for these purpose, and must be channelled selectively into centres, perhaps by making allocations to universities with regard to organisational capacities for research.

All this need not be a threat to universities' mission to be both teaching and research institutions. What is proposed is rather an organisational separation of the university's distinct businesses.

William Solesbury was secretary of the Economic and Social Research Council 1990-95, and is now an independent research management consultant. Janet Lewis is research director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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