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Research management: The big picture


Global overview highlights the profession’s vital place in the research ecosystem, says Simon Kerridge

Until the 1940s, researchers themselves managed the funding and compliance issues around their work. As science got bigger, though, particularly in the US during and after the Second World War, the additional complexity of larger and collaborative grants required niche expertise. The job of research management and administration was born. 

Since then, there has been a love-hate relationship between those doing the research and those ensuring compliance with funder and university rules—although the boundary is often blurred and people can do both, often at the same time. Perhaps for this reason, despite being nearly a century old, research management and administration still feels like a vaguely defined, embryonic profession, uncertain of its place in the wider structures of research. 

Partly this is because research itself is changing rapidly, altering what is required of research managers and administrators. Partly it is because RMAs are an under-researched group. On this latter point, at least, things are changing, most recently with the launch of a new open-access book, The Emerald Handbook of Research Management and Administration Around the World.

The book, which is published on 29 November, delves into the broader issues of the formation and evolution of these professional groups, explaining the reasons behind their existence and the significance of their roles in an increasingly globalised research landscape. 

With three lead editors, including myself, seven regional editors, and more than 70 chapters from 127 authors, mostly practitioners joined by a few scholars, based in more than 40 countries, the handbook can claim to be the first comprehensive account and overview of this essential part of the research ecosystem.

The history of RMAs 

The first part of the book looks at the history of the role, and the context, identity, and issues related to the professionalism of RMAs. Six chapters chart the development of the profession across Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and North America; two look at the demographics of RMAs across the world—most, for example, are women, but this is not the case in some places, such as Africa. 

North America has led the way in defining what research administration (as they call it there) looks like, with other regions following its example. A developing network of national and international associations has been crucial to this process.

Skills and competencies

Another chapter looks at the skills and competencies of RMAs, while another focuses on their professional accreditation. In terms of identity, one chapter views RMAs as a subset of university professional staff, while another takes a broader view and includes support professionals working in organisations, such as funders and charities, which don’t themselves do research. Another chapter compares RMAs with those supporting teaching and learning, and suggests that those working in research have a stronger sense of community.

The second part of the book looks at the state of research management and administration in different parts of the world. RMAs tend to be highly academically qualified: in some places, including the UK, nearly half have doctorates. 

In the US, this falls to a fifth, with master’s level qualifications being more prevalent, including a small but growing number of degrees in research administration itself. Technical skills are important, but soft skills such as communication and collaboration are also crucial.

While around a third of RMAs have moved from research positions, people come from almost every background. In many ways, it is an invisible profession: more than six in every seven RMAs happen upon their first position rather than actively pursuing it. Precarity is major concern for some, with a quarter to a third of people in most regions working on temporary contracts, although in the US the figure is far lower, at one in 14.

With the growing focus on research culture, it is increasingly important to recognise the contributions of everyone who works in the field. Ultimately, the handbook aims to offer an evidence-based discussion of research management, as a foundation to promoting its visibility and status. 

A better understanding of these roles would benefit research as a whole. Keeping up with government regulations and funding requirements requires a highly skilled workforce; RMAs help facilitate the global research collaborations that are crucial to the long-term research competitiveness of institutions, and even entire nations. Policymakers need to work to raise awareness of the profession and encourage top talent to enter the field. 

Simon Kerridge is an independent research consultant and honorary staff member at the University of Kent, UK

This article also appeared in Research Europe