Research management must walk before it runs

The profession must take small steps to build its standing, a study has found. Zoë Corbyn reports

March 26, 2009

They may be misunderstood and maligned by researchers, but being the bane of academics' lives is the least of the worries facing the growing cadre of "research managers" in universities.

More pressing for those charged with increasing the volume of institutions' research and improving the quality is the concern that their fledgeling profession is already facing a crisis: an inability to recruit and retain good staff because of the lack of clear training and career development options.

The question of how to tackle these problems has been the subject of a project by senior administrators at Imperial College London and the University of Bristol, aimed at "transforming research management into a recognised career".

The results of the study, Professionalising Research Management, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Medical Research Council, will be presented to more than 100 research managers at a conference next week.

Controversially, rather than recommending a full-steam-ahead approach by establishing professional qualifications and an institute for research managers, the report recommends a longer-term strategy aimed at developing an "embryonic profession struggling to create an identity".

Its gist is that research managers should first think about whether they need the large number of small and disparate groups that have emerged to represent them, and then consider an amalgamation.

Ranging from the Association of Research Managers and Administrators to the Association for University Research and Industry Links, there are about 11 groups attempting to represent the profession, so the first step towards rationalisation may be a "federated leadership", the report says.

Measured approach

John Green, the chief co-ordinating officer at Imperial College London and co-author of the report, said he approached the project expecting to recommend that the sector move quickly towards greater professionalism, but now believes that a more measured approach is needed.

"When I came to the project, I thought - in my arrogant way - 'this is a no-brainer, we must have some form of professional qualifications, diplomas that are accredited and an institute'.

"But what I have recognised is that not everyone agrees, and it takes time to get sign-up from people. If we went forward we would continue the fragmentation we have.

"There is first a need to (agglomerate) all those different little bodies, and that does not happen by having a bulldozer come in, it comes from getting consensus."

The study, based on interviews with staff at 20 English universities, begins by setting the research management scene in the UK as "typified by a lack of professional training, qualifications and clear (career) progression".

It stresses the importance of professional research management to the sector and compares it with "mature professions" such as human resources or finance. But it adds that the profession currently lacks an identity.

It concludes that confusion surrounds the role of research support, with staff working in the area "not sure if they are part of a clearly defined community, let alone a professional one"; that recruitment difficulties are unsurprising, given the area is so "ill-defined" and "inhomogeneous"; and that people "fall into the career" rather than identifying it as an opportunity.

It also reports that staff find it difficult to gain a clear "career direction".

The study describes training for the area as "highly fragmented" - internally it is inconsistent between one university and the next, and what little is on offer externally is "haphazard".

Dr Green said: "It is difficult to recruit people into the profession because it is difficult to define what the profession is. They are not keen to come in because they cannot see a career structure, and there is no training methodology."

While the report does find "significant demand and appetite" for a "professional research management framework", it says there is no satisfactory platform to encourage this demand.

Dr Green said he was asking his fellow research managers to recognise that there is a problem with the current arrangements as a first step towards a workable solution.

"What I hope is that this report lances the boil and makes everyone realise that some of the current organisations supporting us are not professional and strong enough to be able to do what needs to be done," he said.

"But rather than beating them over the head ... let's agree that we have to get them all working together (as one organisation) to move into the professionalisation space."

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