Top research teams ‘have more overseas academics and use carrots not sticks’

Analysis of top-ranked groups also finds they have ‘accountable autonomy’ from the university

November 18, 2015
Researcher with microscope in lab

The research teams who did best in last year’s research excellence framework (REF) tended to have more non-UK academics and people with experience overseas, and generally used carrots rather than sticks to motivate members, a new analysis has found.

Top groups also tended to have “accountable autonomy” from the central university, the study for the Higher Education Funding Council for England found.

The study focused on the best 1.5 per cent of submissions to the 2014 REF.

Compared with the average, high-performing groups had a higher proportion of researchers:

- Who had PhDs

- Who were professors

- With a salary that was not entirely funded by the university

- Who were not UK nationals

- Whose previous employment was overseas

However, the report stresses that it had not investigated causation and so “these characteristics should therefore not be interpreted as causative of high performance”.

As well as looking at the people working in high-performing research groups, the report also investigated their culture and organisation through interviews and workshops with the teams.

On the question of motivation, most of the groups interviewed said that offering rewards to researchers for good performance was far more effective than using targets or penalties, which could have a bad effect on morale.

Rewards included promotions, salary increases, a reduced amount of teaching, sabbaticals and extra funding.

The report also found that “for high-performing research units, leaders had ‘earned’ the trust of senior management and had a degree of ‘accountable autonomy’ in the way they lead and run their research unit”.

“They were ‘accountable’ in that they had to ‘check in’ with central institutional staff to maintain the earned trust, but ‘autonomous’ in the sense they could shape the strategic direction of the unit and, more importantly, develop shared strategy and a communal culture,” it says.

It also found that the top research groups had more income per head than the average.

The report, Characteristics of high-performing research units, was created by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and RAND Europe, a research institute.

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