UK research management must be professionalised
Press release issued: 30 March 2009
The way the UK manages its research is fragmented and confused, finds a report published today [30 March 2009]. The study, led by Imperial College London and the University of Bristol, claims that universities are hampered by a lack of coherent sector-wide agreement on the role and responsibilities of staff who manage research portfolios.
Research management demands a broad range of skills and knowledge, including Research Assessment Exercise preparation, dealing with intellectual property and commercialisation, contract negotiation, project management, and ensuring that the terms and conditions of funding awards are adhered to. Yet, according to the new report, staff in this field do not have a clear career structure and professional training, a situation that creates barriers to both recruitment and development.
This is in contrast with the situation in other countries, notably the USA, where research management is a recognised profession with accredited training and nationally recognised qualifications. Study co-author Dr John Green, Chief Coordinating Officer at Imperial College London, says:
“Research management is one function that helps keep universities afloat and gives them a competitive edge, by bringing in business and pricing it at a proper rate. It is critical that we recruit people with the right expertise, but without a clear professional structure we will struggle to do so. At the moment this is a career that you are more likely to fall into than actively choose. It’s a situation that the sector as a whole must take active steps to address.”
Co-author Dr David Langley of the University of Bristol agrees: “While research management training does exist and is filling a gap, it is somewhat piecemeal and does not provide a verified qualification accepted and recognised across the range of bodies that require research management expertise. If research management is going to be accepted as the vital profession it is, we must look carefully at this issue, for the sake of individuals and the sector as a whole.”
The authors conducted interviews with staff with a responsibility for managing research in 20 of the 86 English universities that receive research funding. They found that while 19 of the institutions had a research strategy, confidence in these was mixed, with managers in only four universities feeling that its objectives had been met. In the majority of universities research strategies would be or were already under review.
A key issue uncovered by the report is a wide variety in the structure of research management units across the sector in both size and shape, with some set up as centralised functions while others are devolved into academic departments.
This has led to staff in this field holding different roles and therefore to different approaches to their recruitment and training, resulting in a lack of clear career paths and standardised professional development. In fourteen institutions the majority of appointments were external, reflecting problems in developing and promoting existing staff, while half of the universities surveyed reported difficulties in finding staff with the skills they were looking for.
This is in contrast to similar functions such as finance or human resources, in which comparable structures and job roles make it easy to identify the skills required at each level and to transfer skills and people and share good practice.
Dr Green adds: “The bodies that fund research take its management very seriously, and conduct thorough auditing to ensure that recipients of funding are behaving correctly. Rather than have them police institutions after the fact, it would make much more sense to have a transparent sector-wide system of research management in place. I hope our report will stimulate a discussion about how we can move towards that goal.”
The study ‘Professionalising Research Management’ was funded by the Higher Education Research Council for England and the Medical Research Council. It reports at a post-project meeting today at Imperial College London.