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Research managers edge closer to professional status

Research managers are to have greater guidance on career progression, following the publication of a Professional Development Framework.

The framework, released last month by the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, describes the duties of research managers at junior and senior levels, as well as the skills needed to fulfil them. It was put together following a 2009 report, Professionalising Research Management, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Medical Research Council, which said that there was “significant demand and appetite” for a framework that could be used across higher education.

ARMA has focused on careers at universities and other higher education institutions, having concluded that developing a single framework for “multiple audiences” could be a challenge.

But the organisation says the document could be adapted in the future for use by research managers in other types of organisation, such as the NHS, research funders and private organisations.

In the longer term, ARMA also hopes to produce an accredited professional qualification for research managers and administrators.

Research Councils UK welcomes the framework but John Green, an honorary research associate at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the 2009 report, is critical of the way it was developed. Green says that focus groups were more representative of less research-intensive universities, making it unclear for whom the final product is intended.

“My worry is that the framework tries to be all things to all men and that it will end up being nothing to no one. Is the framework for Cambridge, employing 100 research management staff, or Northumbria, employing two? Taking this approach is a bit like trying to develop a cashing up system that would work in both John Lewis and your local shop,” he says.

Ian Carter, ARMA’s chairman, told Research Fortnight that he disagrees. ARMA had input from managers across the sector, he says, including some of the most research intensive. “I don’t think Newcastle would describe itself as a non-research intensive university and we also had input from Cambridge. He has a point about different universities having different needs but the framework is not intended to be prescriptive or absolute and I would be very disappointed if it didn’t evolve from here,” he says.

Between September and December 2010, members of the ARMA board were interviewed and a series of workshops were run with research managers and administrators to get a picture of the range of roles they undertake and the skills, knowledge and attributes required for each. The resulting framework, which was developed between January and July this year, sets out 21 functions in seven broad categories, such as developing proposals; management information and related functions; technology transfer; working with postgraduate researchers; and service organisation and delivery.

The tasks associated with these functions are described for three career levels—operational, managing and leading. The aim is to help senior research managers write accurate job descriptions, support the continuing professional development of staff and raise the profile of research management as a profession.

Organisations including the researcher careers group Vitae, the Association of University Administrators and the Association for University and Industry Links contributed to the development of the framework.

The difficulty of developing a research management framework that encompasses the whole of higher education was highlighted in the 2009 report. “Reporting lines, structures, roles and responsibilities differ widely from institution to institution,” it concluded. The 2009 report suggests that bringing together the various bodies that represent research managers—including ARMA, AURIL and Vitae—to establish a federated leadership for the sector could be a useful step. But the 2009 report doesn’t outline any specific recommendations on how a comprehensive professional framework for research managers could be developed.

Green criticises ARMA for not having included a concrete plan for how it intends to develop a professional accreditation system. “ARMA struggles to put on their own courses and workshops and I don’t believe they have the capacity or infrastructure to develop an accredited qualification. It’s not a business organisation,” he says.

Carter says that ARMA is still planning to develop an accredited qualification. “We never intended to have an answer for an accreditation at this stage. There’s a bit of ambivalence amongst our members about what they want. We have not lost sight of the task at hand but we don’t want a knee-jerk reaction,” he says.

ARMA wants research managers to be able to gain the same status as other, better developed professions, Carter said. “David Langley, another one of the co-authors of the 2009 report, is working on the development of a masters degree in research management and I fully support him in that process. But this route is not something ARMA is interested in. We want to develop a professional not an academic qualification—something similar to the chartered qualifications that give accountants and engineers their professional status,” he says.