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Earma 2023: Prague conference highlights big challenge for research

‘Essential’ and ‘often overlooked’— two descriptions used this week by a senior European Commission official to sum up research managers. The tension between these labels emphasises a major challenge for the research system.

Anna Panagopoulou, the Commission’s director of the European Research Area and innovation, was clear: gaps in research management are hindering efforts to grow European research capacity, and there is momentum for change in the support afforded to the profession. At the same time, Panagopoulou and many other speakers at this year’s conference of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators in Prague were forthright about a major barrier. The role of research management and its benefits are still not properly understood by policymakers—nor, crucially, often within universities themselves. As a result, those working in the field are being hamstrung in their work.

The Commission’s focus on research management marks a gradual shift in recent years—most notably with work on the European Research Area’s Action 17—that references research managers’ and administrators’ role in building a stronger public research system. The pressing question now is whether, and to what degree, others take up this cue.

A snap poll at the event found that 83 per cent of delegates in one session believed their institution would not support greater funding for research management if it meant less money spent on research itself. The finding is as unsurprising as it is damning in its short-termism. As one panellist pointed out, less money spent on research does not necessarily mean less research being done. Part of research management’s purpose is to make the funding cycle more efficient, so researchers can spend more time on research itself.

Valuing and nurturing the expertise of colleagues whose work can make the difference in winning grants, meeting governance obligations and forging new research partnerships should be common sense for university leaders. This is all integral to universities’ research ambitions, and for those ambitions to be realised at scale, researchers stand firmly on the shoulders of those who support them.

A better understanding of research management’s value is long overdue, and Panagopoulou called on delegates to gather hard evidence of the profession’s impact. But while parts of the sector, and its policymakers, catch up with what is already happening, research management is rapidly changing. New technologies and huge agendas—assessment and publishing reforms to name but two—could change research for the better, but could also bring myriad challenges. Research managers will be vital to universities’ ability to respond to such shifts—but they need the right backing, in their work environment and funding. 

Ladislav Krištoufek, vice-rector of Prague’s Charles University, perhaps encapsulated the mindset change needed. Having professed during a keynote interview not to be a research manager, he later clarified that, as someone overseeing research operations, in a sense he must be. 

Research managers are not ‘other’; they are integral to the success of university research. To be effective, they need to be recognised as such. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe