The research industry must look after its people and find financial backing by training researchers in management, says John Goddard
Throughout the university system, final tweaks are being made to what should be a vital element in the Research Assessment Exercise - the "statements of research environment and plans".
A key line in the Higher Education Funding Council guidelines on this section states: "The mechanisms that exist to promote, manage and monitor the departments' research should be identified". This one line aside, it is surprising how little attention is devoted within the higher education system to monitoring the effective management of the United Kingdom research industry based in universities - an industry which, in 1993, attracted Pounds 2 billion of funding from the HEFC, the research councils, charities and industry, and which employed 66,000 people.
All good research requires talented researchers. They will only flourish in organisations that nurture and sustain that talent - through creating a lively intellectual milieu, encouraging multidisciplinary perspectives, providing specialist technical and administrative support, offering career development prospects and ensuring accountability for research funding.
The poor terms and conditions of service for many contract researchers, lack of investment in research infrastructure, opaque funding regimes within universities, the reluctance of many research customers to pay decent overheads, the lagging commitment in many universities - and, it must be said, among many researchers - to staff development and training, all conspire against this ideal.
But the ideal can be attained, and the constraints overcome, by effective management of the research enterprise. In 1992, the Association of Directors of Research Centres in the Social Sciences decided to grasp this nettle. DORCISS is a unique meeting place for research directors - both inside and outside the universities - to share experience and develop good practice.
Over the past four years it has focused much of its work of defining and developing management skills for research at all levels, from researchers themselves, through project and programme managers, different kinds of specialist or support staff (it has spawned a very lively Research Administrators Group) to centre directors.
At a conference on March 20 we shall be presenting the results of this work and inviting the views of the employers, funders and users of research and researchers themselves. We shall be launching a statement of principles for the management of research.
This does not herald an invasion of the research world by an army of men in grey suits. The NHS experience is there as a warning. Rather, the call is for researchers themselves to take management seriously - as the means for tackling those very problems that frustrate their best efforts to achieve their intellectual ambitions. What are the features of this home-grown style of research management? We emphasise three points.
First, the people in research are its key resource. In this respect research is a quintessential knowledge business. Looking after the people in the research enterprise through good practice in recruitment, training, assigning tasks and responsibilities, promotion and career development - is the fundamental management task.
Without that there will not be good quality, timely and well-presented research results in the short term - and probably not any customers in the long term. But this is not just a task for the director or head of department. It involves everyone - individual researchers have a responsibility to manage themselves and to share in the management of the teams in which they work, as well as a right to participate in the overall management of the organisation. Surely this is what collegiality means?
Second, good research must be paid for. Its results may often be in the nature of a public good but they cannot come cheap. How research income and expenditure get handled within universities is very variable and not always very clear. Here, the experience of DORCISS members has been helpful. Research centres are really small businesses who run independent research centres outside universities. They are expected to balance their books if they are to survive. This means that they must be granted organisational autonomy - which may be painful for some university senior managers to concede. It also means that they must be realistic in pricing their work - both for services provided to host universities and for contract research for business and government customers.
Third, managing people, money, assets and information takes time and requires skills that many researchers feel they do not presently have. The answer is not to import managers, but to train researchers to manage themselves and others more effectively.
As DORCISS has learned from its members in the last few years, much of the expertise is readily to hand among colleagues who have already learned from experience; among trainers and consultants already working in the field; among some of the more energetic learned societies. But researchers need to be more committed to tapping that expertise. Encouragement and support from employers, funders and customers can help to foster that commitment. In the long run better research management - enabling better research - is in their interest too.
John Goddard is dean of the faculty of law, environment and social sciences, University of Newcastle. The DORCISS conference on research management will take place at the Policy Studies Institute on March 20.