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Research management: Speaking the same language

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

Those behind a project clarifying the research management profession see broader gains for European research

Every research manager in every university in Europe knows exactly how to describe their own job. But when it comes to agreeing about the profession more broadly, things are far less straightforward.

The role of research manager does not necessarily look the same across national borders or even at two universities in the same region. “There is no common understanding and certainly no standards,” says Nik Claesen, managing director of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators. 

Earma is coordinating an EU-funded project that is looking to change that. The RM Roadmap, supported with
€1.5 million from the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, is undertaking the tricky task of translation, bringing clarity to the roles and responsibilities in the profession. 

The project has broad aims (see box, P11) but the research managers involved all point to the same problem: the need for a common language for the profession. At the end of its three years of funding, running from 2023 to 2026, the aim is for the roadmap to be an open-access blueprint for the sector to avoid miscommunication. 

What’s in a name?

Speaking to Research Europe ahead of Earma’s 2024 conference in Odense, Denmark, from 23 to 25 April, Claesen says he is in a minority among research managers, having always sought to work in the field. People often enter research management from other areas, including finance, libraries or research itself. Claesen says: “There is always this story of ‘How did you suddenly discover it?’”

His background helps explain his drive to boost the standing of research management through the RM Roadmap, a drive that is evident as he runs through the challenges faced and victories won by Earma in its first year of managing the project. The biggest challenge has been defining ‘research managers’—both the name and the profession. 

While ‘manager’ is the term most often used for research support professionals, Claesen points to the inclusion of ‘and administrators’ in Earma’s name. “I have had a lot of discussions with a lot of people about the name, and it never goes well,” he says.

Balancing the desire for an umbrella term that creates a common understanding of the profession with Europe’s diversity of languages and cultural contexts is a complicated task.

In comparison with Europe, the US has it relatively easy, Claesen says, as there is a longstanding definition in America of the profession and its value proposition. 

The National Council of University Research Administrators, the US counterpart to Earma, was established in 1959. In contrast, Earma was founded in 1995, with work “really picking up in the last 10 years”, although that does not imply the European sector is inferior in any way, Claesen says. 

The US framework does not directly transfer across the Atlantic and it is important for Europe to establish its own, which is where the RM Roadmap comes in. 

Defining roles

Claesen says that a decision on how to define ‘research manager’ must be made at the European level, even if it is not perfect. There is a strong call for simplification, while each country may continue to use its own terminology and definitions at the national level. Claesen thinks of the roadmap as a means to navigate this complexity and make it possible to translate between national and European levels.

Otherwise, “when people speak to each other from different organisations or different countries, miscommunication plays a huge part”, he says.

Furthermore, Claesen says there is a need for segmentation of different roles within the profession. He says most people fall into 10 categories “if you really try to slim it down to the bare minimum”, but “it would be easy to list 20 or 30 different categories of research managers”. 

The 10 “bare minimum” categories are represented in the RM Roadmap by thematic ambassadors, covering areas including pre- and post-award specialists and roles focusing on policy, technology transfer and career development (see box, P12).

Some roles, such as account manager, have been left out since they do not translate well between institutions. 

Clara Prats from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark is joint thematic ambassador for the role of research infrastructure officer or manager. She hopes the roadmap “can achieve a consensus on what the job positions are, and descriptions needed to lead, develop and manage excellent research infrastructures in Europe”. 

Within research infrastructures, she points to the need to include managers from a broad range of disciplines: not just the sciences but also the arts and humanities. 

Janni Brødbæk from Odense University Hospital is the other thematic ambassador for infrastructures. She feels that “the focus on research management has been too narrow”, concentrating mainly on roles concerned with funding bids and grant support, and she is pleased that the roadmap takes a broader view.

Brødbæk is optimistic that a focus on the importance of quality research management will make it easier to get funding for tasks “surrounding” projects. Additional funding for roles such as project managers or data managers should be seen as “a natural part of a research budget”, she says.

Brødbæk is driven by “what we as research managers can do to heighten the quality of research, to make it easier for researchers and to ensure resources are spent wisely”. 

The roadmap aims to create better conditions for research managers, with knock-on benefits for research and its wider impact. Claesen says that explicitly addressing research managers in European policy works in policymakers’ favour, since research managers can take accountability for alignment with policy.

One example of where research managers can clearly take responsibility for policy alignment is in ongoing efforts to reform research assessment. Research managers can put principles for fairer research assessment into practice by making more use of qualitative methods and reducing the inappropriate use of quantitative metrics. 

The significant role research managers are playing here is underlined by their representation on the steering board of the EU-backed Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment, which is driving changes in this area.

Growing recognition

The very existence of the RM Roadmap project illustrates that research management is already on the path towards better recognition—something that is music to Claesen’s ears—both at the European level and in individual countries.

He says that putting in place improvements for research managers should never come at the expense of funding research but should be considered part of the research ecosystem. “It is one chain,” he says. 

Alongside attracting Horizon Europe funding, research management has been recognised and included in the 2022-24 policy agenda of the European Research Area. The ERA is an EU initiative to bring the bloc’s countries closer together on research policies and is seen as a key mechanism for bringing about changes at the national level.

The ERA policy is focused on upskilling, recognition, networking and capacity building in the research management profession. Closely aligning with the goals of the roadmap, it aims to “pave the way towards institutional acknowledgment of the R&I management profession” and encourage its growth in less research-intensive EU member states.

The hope for greater collaboration is palpable among national ambassadors chosen for the RM Roadmap. Bosnia and Herzegovina ambassador Nađa Beglerović, from the International University of Sarajevo, feels it “will help me acquire invaluable skills and help me forge meaningful partnerships, since Earma’s members work at the forefront of building the ERA”. 

The roadmap is focused on professional development across the whole sector but has also led to personal gain for many of the research managers involved, especially those working for organisations that can be overlooked in European policy. 

Many of the thematic and national ambassadors got actively involved in the roadmap for the process of creation as well as the outcome. Beglerović says that “as a small country aspiring to join the EU, Bosnia and Herzegovina must establish connections with research management professionals from the EU, which will help us foster knowledge exchange, share experiences and disseminate best practices”. 

Flying the flag

Even though many research managers work closely with researchers at universities and other institutions, some feel there is still a lack of understanding and appreciation across the sector.

As well as coordinating the roadmap project, Earma will advocate for its adoption to put the profession on a firm footing for the future. Claesen says: “The real work is going to start in the second half of the project, because we are going to lay the groundwork and the data, get the surveys, get the buy-in and get the network ready” for what comes next.

Elisabeth Holuscha, the ambassador for Germany and an independent consultant, wants to see “a substantial bolstering of the political advocacy work within the realm of research management…not only for the immediate benefits it brings to the sector but also for the long-term goal of elevating research management to a more prominent and attractive career choice”. 

Holuscha calls for better recognition within academia to “pave the way for the next generation of professionals to enter this field with a solid foundation of knowledge and respect for its importance”.

Despite the commitment that many managers feel for their work, Claesen worries that there is no “follow-up career plan” within research management. This creates a negative cycle where more experienced managers take their skills into another sector, leaving institutions to train new managers who eventually move on themselves—a situation Claesen describes as a “war for talent” in Europe.

The problem is starting to be recognised. In December, the Council of the EU member states adopted recommendations on attracting and retaining researchers, research managers and research technicians in Europe, responding to concerns about brain drain.

The recommendations state that “research management careers should be adequately framed and recognised” at EU level.

Claesen says this is exactly what the RM Roadmap is working towards and that the project is “ahead of schedule”. He is optimistic that the level of attention the roadmap is receiving is a sign that the momentum for change is picking up. 

As research managers across Europe come to increasingly agree on the shape of their profession, the hope is that far less will get lost in translation and far more will be understood about their indispensable role in European research.

Shared responsibility

The RM Roadmap’s four pillars are upskilling, capacity building, networking and awareness creation. Despite being EU-funded, the project goes beyond the bloc’s member states, involving research managers in more than 40 countries represented by 120 ambassadors.

The European Association of Research Managers and Administrators is the coordinator and advocate for the project, but several other organisations are involved in key aspects. These include:

  • The Hétfa Research Institute, based in Budapest, Hungary, which is leading the work on mapping, characterising and quantifying the research management community, as well as making recommendations and guidelines for standards and terminology.
  • Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Portugal, which is leading work on supporting and promoting access to training and a future Europe-wide training and networking scheme.
  • ASTP, a knowledge exchange organisation based in Leiden, the Netherlands, which is leading on the long-term use of the outputs from the RM Roadmap project.

Role players

The RM Roadmap has slimmed down the wide range of roles held in research management across Europe into 10 core categories:

  • Research policy and strategy officer/adviser.
  • Research grant officer/adviser (pre-award). 
  • Research project manager (post-award). 
  • Research impact officer/adviser.
  • Research knowledge and technology transfer officer. 
  • Research training and research career development expert. 
  • Research ethics and integrity officer/manager. 
  • Research infrastructure officer/manager. 
  • Research data and information officer/manager.
  • Research evaluation and assessment expert.

This article also appeared in Research Europe