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Earma 2023: What’s in a name?


The job title ‘research manager’ may no longer be fit for purpose, says Evelina Brännvall

The EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme is generally seen as an evolution of its predecessor, Horizon 2020, rather than a revolution. At the large-scale structure of the programme, this is true. At the level of funding calls, however, the changes are more substantial than the research community had anticipated. 

Many calls now require that research projects tackle challenges throughout the entire value chain, making them very large and complex. Second, more regulatory aspects have been introduced, such as the exclusive focus on civil applications and the ‘do no significant harm’ principle, while none of the pre-existing criteria have been removed. 

For other aspects, the focus has shifted. On gender balance, for example, there has been a move away from counting heads towards considering the gender-related aspects of research methodologies. 

Increased complexity also manifests in demands for researchers to be experts on dissemination, impact, commercialisation, inclusiveness and diversity, open science and stakeholder engagement. These tasks require expertise, and they are time-consuming. This is why Action 17 of the European Research Area Policy Agenda recognises the importance of building research management capacity across Europe as a route to “enhancing the strategic capacity of Europe’s public research performing and funding organisations”. 

Creating a true single market in research, spreading excellence and widening participation require action in these areas.

What’s an RMAs? 

For Europe to lead in research globally, research management expertise, which is currently unevenly distributed, must be scaled up. Research managers and administrators (RMAs) also need defined career paths, and to gain professional recognition across the continent, as they already do in the US.

The situation seems set to improve, thanks to the efforts of the growing community of RMAs and to top-down support from the European Commission. But this isn’t just about creating posts and hiring people; it’s about rethinking what being an RMA means.

The boundary between researchers and RMAs is increasingly fuzzy. Many people now working in research offices are former researchers (including myself), and many of the tasks required of them demand high-level skills and knowledge. Yet the change of job title from researcher to manager often means these staff are no longer seen as experts, even though they have gained skills in cross-cutting administrative issues while retaining their academic knowledge and expertise.

Describing these people as administrators or support staff does not capture the nature of the jobs they do. Given that roughly three-quarters of the profession are women, it can also have a regressively gendered aspect. 

Recognition of RMAs will lead to a higher status of the profession. Using the right terminology will also help change attitudes towards the profession. 

Giving RMAs job titles which reflect that expertise would help researchers better recognise the skilful people working alongside them and the resources at their fingertips. At times academics choose to partner with outside companies on tasks such as dissemination because they do not realise that in-house RMAs and professional services staff have the expertise they need. 

In the role of policy officers, RMAs can also bridge the gap between policy and science—another frequent demand of EU research funding—and participate in making evidence-based policy by transmitting knowledge from the scientific community to policymakers. Researchers can find such tasks difficult.

One helpful step towards better recognition for RMAs would be to reposition how their contribution is funded. It should be treated as part of the grant, with RMAs, where relevant, made equal partners in projects rather than having their work hidden away in an overhead. 

What will the next steps be? What will success look like? Discussions and investigations are underway to find definitions and titles for RMAs that work across different nations. 

Horizon Europe is funding the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators to coordinate a three-year project running until 2025 called RM Roadmap, aiming to identify the state and needs of the profession. Another EU-funded project, coordinated by University College Cork, aims to boost the status, skills and networks of research managers.

But this will not be an easy task, and capturing and understanding all aspects of the RMA profession will require ideas and input from the broader community. 

Research Professional News is media partner for the Earma 2023 conference, held this week in Prague.

Evelina Brännvall is EU policy officer at Universities in South Sweden, and chair of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators  

This article also appeared in Research Europe