Research leadership is a castle built on shifting sand

In an age of vast team-science projects, it is more important than ever that leaders be properly prepared, says Matthew Flinders

August 6, 2019
camel train in desert
Source: Getty (edited)

If you are about to depart on your well-earned holidays, I doubt that you’ll be idling away your treasured time thinking about the institutional dynamics of higher education or the changing research funding landscape. You’ll be far too busy rereading A. H. Halsey’s Decline of Donnish Dominion (1995) and reminding yourself of how good academic life used to be.

Bear in mind, though, that you could become a national expert in research leadership by reading just four books. I should know: I have spent the past 12 months conducting a national review of the topic for the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.

“But what is research leadership?” I hear you ask. And the fact that this is by far the most common response I receive when I mention the phrase is indicative of the scale of the challenge involved in improving the UK’s ability to lead genuinely world-class research projects that combine scholarly excellence with demonstrable social impact.

There is a huge research literature on “leadership studies”, of which a significant chunk focuses on managerial leadership within higher education. But you are more likely to encounter an academic on a northern hemisphere campus in August than to find a study of intellectual leadership – by which I mean how individuals build research teams, identify talent, harness different skills, motivate partners, challenge entrenched cultures, overcome barriers, inspire confidence and mentor the next generation. The four books that contain the sum of our knowledge, since you ask, are Paul Ramsden’s Learning to Lead in Higher Education (1988), Robin Middlehurst’s Leading Academics (1993), Bruce Macfarlane’s Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education (2012) and Linda Evans’ Professors as Academic Leaders (2018). Beach reading par excellence, in my view.

This paucity of knowledge matters a great deal. A national science base may well be systemically vulnerable if it fails to think strategically and creatively about research leadership at a time of intense change and uncertainty; that is particularly true of the UK given the increasing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, those countries, disciplines and institutions that see the opportunities presented by building capacity on research leadership are likely to flourish.

Across the world, the research funders are moving towards supporting “team science”. This constitutes large, ambitious and complex projects, often with “hub-and-spoke” structures, that are interdisciplinary in nature, international in scope and may involve a consortium of funders. They are also likely to embrace forms of co-design and co-production, with a commitment to mobility between academia and other professional sectors and an emphasis on knowledge mobilisation (impact) as well as knowledge creation.

All this raises distinctive questions about what it means to be a professor, the skill set needed to fulfil a leadership role (note “a”, not “the”) within such large projects, and how these skills can be nurtured. It also raises critical questions for the future of the social sciences, arts and humanities, where the tradition of the lone scholar remains dominant.

We need a new approach to research leadership that has the potential to transform the research landscape through innovation in relation to both research itself and infrastructure development, leading to new ways to nurture talent and address long-standing issues in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion.

My extensive review of the UK’s existing structures for researcher development and research leadership reveals a fragmented patchwork that is not always fit for purpose and is generally focused at the early career stage. A braver chap might suggest that it reflects a typically British cultural emphasis on muddling through, mirrored in the thin seam of existing research and its emphasis on luck and “learning through failure” (flowing into a related body of work that discusses the pathologies of “lost leaders”, “lonely leaders” and “leadership lags”).

One of the most interesting features of the discussions I’ve been having up and down the country is that mid-career and senior scholars are generally very open about their need for more professional support. There appears to be an appetite to think about how to support research leadership throughout the full professional journey, from PhD student to senior professor.

Some organisations have seized the initiative and are already building learning networks that span traditional disciplinary and professional boundaries. The Wellcome Trust’s Senior Research Leadership Programme in biomedicine springs to mind. So does the Clore Leadership Programme in the arts and cultural sector, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Scottish Crucible scheme for early career researchers, and the Academy of Medical Science’s new Future Leaders in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Research initiative.

But the question is how to replicate such ambition and agility in a joined-up manner, across the full academic spectrum. It is for exactly this reason that UK Research and Innovation’s latest delivery plan talks of the need for a “paradigm shift” in supporting research careers. But what form might this actually take – and is the challenge really one that needs addressing?

What better topic could there be to ponder under your parasol?

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, president of the UK’s Political Studies Association and board member of the ESRC. His national consultation on researcher development and research leadership can be found here.

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