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Research officers ‘should be more proactive’ to gain recognition

Earma director says Research Professional News surveys highlight ongoing issues for the profession

Research officers “should be more proactive” to help their profession gain the recognition from researchers and policymakers that many in the role think is lacking at present, according to the head of their European association.

Nik Claesen, managing director of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Earma), was speaking on 5 December in a webinar that Earma co-hosted with Research Professional News discussing the results of two recent surveys on views of research offices.

The surveys by Clarivate and RPN, which is an editorially independent part of Clarivate, found that 38 per cent of the researchers who responded said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the level of support provided by their research office. But 29.5 per cent said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied, while research officers reported being challenged by a shortage of resources and feeling that their profession is overlooked.

‘Be more proactive’

“I think our community should be more proactive than it has been” to drive change in its perceived and actual place in the research landscape, Claesen said.

“We need to be clear enough about what research management is…what our value is. Often we’re going into too much technicality from our side. To some significant decision-makers our existence is not even clear on exactly what we’re doing, so creating awareness around that is super important.”

Claesen said the results from the surveys of over 1,600 researchers and research officers confirmed several challenges and opportunities that he and the profession are already engaging with.

These include the slow pace of movement away from researchers being evaluated mostly on the basis of their publications, with the survey showing little expectation from researchers that research officers should help them demonstrate impact on society.

 “We still have a lot of things to do,” Claesen said of research officers.

A community approach

Bringing about “real change of recognition and professionalisation” for research officers in Europe will require action primarily at the national level, Claesen said.

“Funders, the political level, other actors also need to buy in,” he said.

At European level, he said it will be key to agree common terminology and set common standards in different countries to enable efficient working across borders.

This is one of the aims of an EU-funded project that Earma is leading, called RM Roadmap.

Chris Parr, an RPN senior editor and the author of the report on the Clarivate-RPN surveys, said in the webinar that those surveys had “teased out how there is a bigger need for a community approach, a more collaborative approach”, to the profession.

“Research is a community,” he said, “with lots of different players, all incredibly important in driving the changes that the surveys identify need to be made.”

Regional variations

Claesen said one of the notable findings was that “it seems that not so many people are concerned about artificial intelligence making major changes” for research officers.

He said that, in his view, respondents “might still be underestimating” the potential that AI has to “become more important in an exponential way, faster than we are expecting”.

Researcher managers have been debating the impact of AI since interest surged with the advent of tools such as ChatGPT. Some say the technology could render much of their work obsolete, while others say such fears are overblown

Parr reported in the webinar that 32.1 per cent of research officer respondents in Europe, excluding the UK, thought AI would be a big driver of change in the next five years, compared with 14.6 per cent in the UK, 35.4 per cent in Australia and New Zealand, 28.1 per cent in North America, and 24.7 per cent overall.

Another split between Europe and North America was in the extent to which research officers reported that a lack of resource was a big challenge to winning funding—53 per cent in Europe, including the UK, versus 38 per cent in North America.

Claesen cautiously suggested this could be down to universities in the United States having more access to sources of funding such as venture capital, and that it is sometimes clearer how US research officers are adding value by completing compliance work for funders.