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Two cheers for Vitae

But HEFCE and the research councils should continue to stump up beyond 2015

No doubt there will be celebrations at the Cambridge offices of Vitae, the body charged with turning research into a recognisable profession. As we report in this week’s cover story, HEFCE and the research councils have thrown Vitae a lifeline, promising to continue its funding until 2015.

What happens after that is the million-dollar question.

While Vitae is not that well known in the wider research world, many readers will recognise its ‘parent’ body, the Careers Research and Advisory Centre or Crac, publisher of many a survival guide for the newly-minted PhD. Vitae was created to help researchers take control of their careers, which can often drift. But it has changed its emphasis in response to changing times and its principal role now is to develop professional standards for the research environment. This it does by working not so much with individuals as with institutions.

In an interview with this publication, HEFCE’s director for research, innovation and skills David Sweeney makes it clear that if Vitae wants to continue beyond 2015, then it must provide a service that universities are willing to pay for. There will, we are told, be no more direct support after that date.

Sweeney and his colleagues must be congratulated for continuing Vitae’s funding. But in closing down the organisation’s account after 2015 they are being short sighted. One of the reasons why HEFCE and the research councils have had to throw Vitae a proverbial lifeline (after declaring in 2011 that Vitae’s funding would not be renewed) is because they know that universities are not likely to come up with the money. Had universities wanted to contribute to a profession-building organisation, this editorial would have been congratulating vice-chancellors. As it is, we are praising the funders instead.

So why are universities not crazy about Vitae?

As we all know, universities the world over have had a pretty poor record in developing research as a profession. There are good reasons for this. Researcher development is difficult in a highly competitive environment in which one of the main goals for an academic is to achieve autonomy for his or her own research, free from the other components of the profession: namely teaching and administration. The funders know this too, and must therefore act to secure Vitae for the long term.

Vitae needs to make changes too and has taken some concrete steps towards self-improvement. It is good to see that it plans to link up with the research managers’ association ARMA, for example, and also with the Association for University Research and Industry Links, the former of which is meeting for its annual conference in Southampton this week.

The ARMA connection is particularly important. Research managers are a few steps ahead in their own professional evolution and will have much that they can share with researchers in this regard. But ARMA thrives on membership fees like so many other professional bodies and unless some similar arrangement can be agreed on for Vitae, its reprieve could be relatively short lived.