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Career support with a Human Resources Strategy for Researchers

The European Commission wants more researchers in Europe. Its Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (HRS4R) aims to improve conditions for them. Justin Synnott, a Commission peer reviewer and a research partner at University College Dublin (UCD), which has HRS4R status, explains how it works.

Forging a research career in Europe can present anomalies. While the European Union seeks a million additional researchers to maintain growth, the choice of a research career could still be considered a precarious one. Research careers often involve short-term contracts, focusing skills in niche research areas, and dealing with fierce competition for funding.

With a view to improving research as a career path, the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, which were published a decade ago, are a set of principles for an improved research system. The charter and code describe best practice on open, transparent and merit-based recruitment of researchers; on researcher working conditions; on the professional aspects of research; and on development and training. 

What is HRS4R? 

Research organisations and research funders can actively implement the principles of the charter and code by participating in the Commission’s strategy, HRS4R. The strategy process is expected to be updated by mid-2016 but as it stands, the five-step process is:

  1. An organisation completes a gap analysis of their policies and practices in light of the principles of the charter and code.
  2. It develops an action plan based on the findings of that analysis, to fill gaps in the provision of support and career development for researchers.
  3. The analysis and action plan are submitted to the Commission and, if approved by external international experts, the organisation wins the HR Excellence in Research award, which recognises the organisation’s desire to continually improve the environment in which research takes place.
  4. Two years after receiving the award, organisations undertake an internal review of progress compared with their action plan. Organisations have a chance to ask: How have we progressed? What has worked well? What have been the challenges? A revised action plan is drawn up for the forthcoming years.
  5. A further internal review four years after gaining the HR award is accompanied by a site visit of peer reviewers organised by the Commission. This is an opportunity for participating organisations to discuss their continuous improvement to support researcher career development and to receive feedback from independent experts.

This way, organisations can identify needs that are not necessarily obvious at the start. Here at UCD, for instance, we piloted a training programme on unconscious bias that the senior management team undertook themselves, despite that the issue hadn’t come up in our original action plan. From this pilot a trainers programme was implemented to deliver further training on unconscious bias across the university. Staff on our interview panels and in our equality, diversity and inclusion university management team have already participated in the training. The idea of continuous improvement definitely helps, as it is impossible for a single action plan to capture everything going on in a complex organisation.  

What are the benefits? 

The value and impact of implementing this strategy is primarily to benefit researchers. It means the organisation implementing the strategy is continuously improving support for researchers, from initial recruitment to researcher skills and development. But the benefits do not end there.

For institution leaders, adopting the strategy can act as a public expression of your organisation’s support for researchers. It acts as a framework for understanding and implementing policies and practices to improve the research environment. It can also provide a competitive advantage in attracting the best researchers.

What happened at UCD?

These principles are very important for UCD, where increasing the quality, quantity and impact of our research is a central strategic objective. The strategy can also be used to support applications for grant funding where researcher support and development are aspects of the calls. 

It encourages researchers’ organisations to identify gaps in provision of support at all career stages and provides a roadmap for continuous improvement. It can act as a useful mechanism for making changes, helping researchers who might find it difficult to know how to raise concerns about the challenges they face.

At UCD, for instance, postdoctoral researchers wanted to improve their skills to pursue academic careers. That was added to our action plan and it prompted us to figure out a solution. Now we are submitting a proposal to the university management team for a university-wide policy on postdoctoral teaching in line with the researchers’ own personal career-development plan.

What’s good about it for university management teams?

For management teams at universities, including the central research office, HR, corporate and legal affairs, the graduate studies office, the career-development team, and so on, the strategy can be seen as a unifying force, bringing together teams with common interests but who may not always have clear sight of one another’s work.

Universities can ask the question: who in your organisation cares for researchers? This often prompts the answer: everybody, but nobody in particular. Implementing the strategy brings together all the people interested to collaborate and discuss researchers and their careers. An example could be the topic of research ethics, as lots of management teams are involved in some aspect of this area. The strategy provides the opportunity to discuss it in the round.

For staff associations?

For the research staff association, the process can act as a valuable mechanism to identify gaps and propose solutions to improve support and development systems. It provides a single connected structure for engagement. The HRS4R process can give researchers a voice; a principle of the charter and code is to recognise the professionalism of researchers and to encourage their participation on senior decision-making committees and boards.

For other organisations?

For funding agencies, the strategy is a clear way to articulate their standards and aspirations to support researchers’ career development. 

For the Commission it develops and strengthens relations with European research and funding organisations, strengthens European Research Area (ERA) and helps implement the principles of the charter and code.

For comparable organisations in Europe it acts as a knowledge-sharing forum, which has been facilitated by the European Commission’s cohort approach to organisations implementing the strategy.

How is it peer reviewed?

I have worked as a peer reviewer for step five of the HRS4R process for the Commission since 2013. Three peer reviewers join the site visit, made up mostly of HR or research managers from EU organisations who are already implementing the strategy in their own institutions. The task of the peer reviewers is to assess the organisation’s progress in implementing their action plan.

The framework is always the principles of the charter and code, so we look at: recruitment, working conditions, professional aspect of research activity, training and career development. We consider the span of activity to see what has been done to improve things in those areas. 

We try to meet a range of people from the organisation independently and confidentially, including researchers and management. While it’s not essential that every researcher has heard of HRS4R, they should be able to see a difference since its implementation, for instance in the recruitment process being more transparent. Peer reviewers are looking to see whether an organisation has taken a tick-box approach or if change management processes are embedded more widely.

How should it be implemented?

It is important to distinguish between short-term actions and broader processes that seek to change the culture of an organisation or the mind-set of their leadership. Action plans should balance both aspects. 

Ensuring continuous buy-in from all stakeholders is essential as all stakeholders play an important role in all steps of the HRS4R process; it cannot be driven by one central unit. For example, steps four and five require a collaborative approach in order to track progress, predict future actions and liaise with visitors during the site visit. In order to achieve this essential collaborative approach organisations are encouraged to:

  • Bring all stakeholders along on the process from the beginning
  • Give them a sense of ownership of aspects of the process
  • Give them a sense of responsibility of appropriate aspects of the process

Demonstrating the value of the strategy is a continuous process. As organisations are constantly in flux, the need to reiterate the value of the process is ongoing. Reflecting on the multi-layered nature of the value of the strategy and developing nuanced messages for a variety of stakeholders can lead to successfully embedding the strategy into the policies in place in the organisation. 

What’s next?

The Commission sees the strategy as an increasingly important mechanism to implement the principles of the charter and code and has firmly anchored it to Horizon 2020, with article 32 of the Annotated Model Grant Agreement. While Horizon 2020 aims to broaden and deepen the ERA through researchers, this is an exercise in broadening and deepening the ERA through HR and research managers. It has the potential to be hugely effective. 

More than 260 European organisations have been awarded HRS4R status and it is a growing group. It’s only going to become more important with the Commission looking to strengthen the process in 2016 by including important issues such as open, transparent and merit-based recruitment.

Implementing the strategy is one way to demonstrate that your organisation fosters a supportive environment for researchers. It breathes life into the ERA priority of an open labour market for researchers, in which researcher mobility is facilitated, training is supported and a research career is considered an attractive option. Implementing the strategy supports these goals. It’s time to get involved.