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Growing pains for career development in post-Roberts world

Universities have struggled to fund researchers’ career development directly from research grants since the removal of a ring-fenced fund for such activities, three Russell Group institutions have told Research Fortnight.

In 2011, Research Councils UK ended its £20-million annual Roberts funding for careers training, saying that activities should become “embedded in normal practices of research organisations”. It is now surveying universities to see how they have been affected by the change.

RCUK suggested in 2011 that universities make up the shortfall by increasing postgraduate researcher fees by £200 and including costs for career development “within their normal business planning processes for their research activity”.

The idea that training could be funded through indirect costs on research grants seems to have been difficult to put into practice.

Elizabeth Adams, researcher development officer at the University of Glasgow, says: “It wasn’t clear to anyone how [using research grants] would work…I don’t think we really try to recover funding through research grants apart from in very specific cases.” Staff members say that unless applicants have specifically built training costs into the grant it can be hard to get the money from the central research office.

Indeed, RCUK’s policy manager Kate Reading acknowledges there were “early indications” that institutions needed further discussions with research offices about the flow of funding from grants.

Researcher development manager Sandrine Soubes says that such processes have not yet been established at the University of Sheffield, meaning her team has so far only been able to use cash from postgraduate fees to pay for training. This means they have a smaller budget than before, and have had to be more cautious in their spending. “We are really struggling,” she says. “It’s just the first year, but something has to change.”

But Reading says the RCUK survey, which closes on 30 May, is primarily a “health check” and that “the prospects of a major change are not enormous”. RCUK plans to commission best-practice case studies from universities and will provide comparative data if it receives sufficient responses.

However, staff at all three universities reported some positive aspects to the shift. “I know some people feel it has made them less able to be innovative, but I think we’re almost the reverse,” says Karen Clegg, director of the researcher development team at the University of York. “Using our own money enabled us to think about what we [as an institution] wanted to achieve.”

Clegg says she believes there will be a “step change” and that “once the culture of research training for research staff becomes more embedded, and as we do more training for academics around grant funding, it will be commonplace for them to include money for training in grants, and that will improve the mechanisms for extracting it”.