Cambridge scheme aims to provide staff with knowhow to run teams and raise funding. Rebecca Attwood reports. A pioneering training scheme designed to prepare academics for the demands of running research projects has been launched by Cambridge University.
The professional development programme is thought to be unique in its exclusive focus on principal investigators, the senior researchers who lead research projects and have responsibility for finding funding, managing the team and reporting back to funding bodies.
Similar schemes are expected to emerge across the sector in the near future.
Government reports such as the Roberts review (2002) have called for universities to do more to develop the leadership and management skills of research staff, and last year Julia Goodfellow, then chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, questioned whether PIs had the skills and support they needed to manage their staff.
Denise Dear, academic development consultant at Cambridge, said: "Developmental opportunities exist in all universities, but they are more generic. By focusing our training events on PIs we are drawing attention to the role of the PI.
"We expect that definition and discussion of this demanding yet rewarding position among the PI community will open up new opportunities for them and shed clarity on their role." Until now, many management techniques had been "learnt on the hoof", she said.
Cambridge's PI programme consists of a series of workshops, briefing sessions and a web resource. The scheme was informed by a recent national survey of more than 1,600 research leaders. The survey, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found that what senior researchers most wanted was advice on securing research funding, and training in leading and managing people.
David Sargan, director of graduate education for the Graduate School of Life Sciences at Cambridge, said there was a steep learning curve for PIs who were new to the role.
"Suddenly you move from the position of the scientist at the bench to the role of manager. You are in charge of what research is done in your lab, and the first thing you have to do is find funding. There is a large range of grant-giving bodies, all with different rules, different priorities, and only about a 20-30 per cent success rate.
"As the line manager of a team of people, you need to know what to do if someone is underperforming or having difficulties with their work."
As many PIs also had teaching or administrative roles, time management could be a difficult balancing act.
Dr Sargan said: "Up until now, people have learnt mostly by imitation and making mistakes. Mentoring schemes largely leave up to the PI and the mentor how many skills are transferred. It is to be hoped that this programme will help people to understand what to expect."
Similar programmes are likely to be rolled out in other universities in the coming months.