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RPN Live: The challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for research offices

The Research Offices of the Future report, published by Research Professional News last month, makes it clear that research office staff are working under a fair amount of pressure.

It also shows that their researcher colleagues face their own frustrations.

The report sets out the results from two international surveys into the role of research offices—one of research officers and one of researchers. Both received over 800 responses each.

At a recent webinar, report author Chris Parr and other panellists discussed how this feedback could be harnessed to build better research offices, and enable better research.

Growing demands

Panellist Silke Blohm, director of the 4Sciences Group research consultancy and a former research manager, noted that the previous 25 years had witnessed a “huge increase” in the complexity of tasks for both researchers and research managers. 

“That has stretched the remit of the researchers themselves [beyond] ‘just’ teaching and research, but also of research officers, [so they are] not just doing pre-award, post-award work, but many other bits and pieces that have been coming in—research integrity, research data management, ethics…”

The growing importance of impact has also added complexity and workload in research offices and research departments. This comes both in research assessment exercises and via what Blohm called “output-driven research to address global challenges”.

Lack of recognition

Yet, as the report showed, the growing complexity of work in research offices is often unacknowledged. In Blohm’s words, researchers tend to think that “research offices can enable me to get funding”. In reality they are capable of assisting with much more, and often already are. 

For panellist Simon Kerridge, also a research management consultant and former director of research services at the University of Kent, this spoke to the “hiddenness of the role of the research office…individual researchers may know some individuals within a research office but won’t know all of the functions of the research office”.

This, turn, contributed to what Blohm called, the “huge discrepancy that we still have between researchers and research officers, and how they engage and how they see each other’s roles”.

The panellists agreed that there would always be some tension in the researcher-research officer relationship, because of their differing priorities. In Kerridge’s words, the research office “in general is at the behest of the pro vice-chancellor for research or equivalent” and so its work is directed by institutional strategy to some extent. On the other hand, researchers’ working lives, for better or worse, “depend upon publications”.

Creating collaboration

Yet the researcher-research office divide can still be bridged, both panellists insisted. One way to do this is for universities to build on the principle of teamwork in developing and delivering research projects. 

As Blohm said, research officers’ growing experience with the many complex aspects of research project management means there is “an opportunity for research offices to become part of the academic endeavour.”

It will be to the benefit of all, Blohm continued, “the more we see [research as involving] fluid groups that work together and [we] recognise that all these people contribute: researchers, technicians, research support staff—they’re all an integral part of creating that success”.

Kerridge added that “visibility and recognition of research office staff” was vital to allow such a change in culture to occur as in many situations, “whether or not the research office has something to add is perhaps not taken into account”. 

He also acknowledged that adoption of a more egalitarian approach to collaboration was largely down to university leaders. “Support from a vice-chancellor can be helpful.”

Creating Communication

For a less top-down approach to bridging the researcher-research office divide, research office staff should take time to build the trust of researchers. “Getting to know each other” conversations over coffee, starting with a few key academics, can be vital in building rapport with researchers, Kerridge said.

He also stressed that keeping communication going with researchers involved constant, proactive work: “going to see them as much as you can”.

But, time and money, the panellists agreed, are often in short supply for research officers.

This was borne out by the survey results, where a lack of budget and other resources was listed as the main challenge facing research offices. 

This, Parr noted, might be one reason why research office staff were less concerned than might be expected about artificial intelligence making their jobs redundant. “If you’re in a very busy research office you can potentially see benefits to programs that might simplify the work structure to free your time up to do other things…We do get a sense from this report that research offices are time stretched.” 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com