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Age of crisis demands a new kind of research leadership

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The UK must nurture talent and skills for a complex world, says Matthew Flinders

The scale and intensity of the challenge posed by Covid-19 has demanded immediate and far-reaching shifts in teaching and research. But it has also brought a potential loss of perspective—we have been pulled so close to the trees, it has become hard to notice or think about the wood.

With summer approaching and the virus apparently under some measure of control, the time may have come to step back and look at the system as a whole. Should responding to Covid-19 be our primary concern, or is it symptomatic of a deeper set of challenges?

Covid-19 is undoubtedly a critical challenge. It will redefine relationships across all aspects of modern life. But dare I suggest it is not the challenge?

The challenge is broader and more basic. It involves recognising not what Covid-19 is in a biological sense, but what it represents in terms of social, global and technological change.

From this perspective the virus looks like simply the latest crisis to have fallen upon modern societies in recent years. Economic crises, migratory crises, technical crises, existential environmental anxieties—not to mention previous pandemics, the Brexit crisis and long-running concerns about the vaunted crisis of democracy.

Covid-19 cannot be studied as a single tree. It is layered upon, and interwoven within, a complex patchwork, as part of a deep and tangled forest.

Mobility, mobility, mobility

If we see Covid-19 as the latest sign of global complexity and interconnectedness, the key question is not: ‘How do we deal with the coronavirus crisis?’ but ‘How should we change our research process to cope with complexity?’

All crises bring challenges and opportunities. The universities, funders and policymakers that grapple with this big question will be best placed to manage the former and realise the latter.

And yet many of the challenges revealed by Covid-19 are not really new. Stripped down to its roots, responding to the pandemic has demanded above all a research environment in which mobility is facilitated and incentivised.

By this I mean the mobility of people, ideas and talent across traditional disciplinary, organisational and professional boundaries. This demands not just an emphasis on interdisciplinary research but also inter-sectoral engagement that facilitates open-knowledge networks.

A less obvious and slightly more unconventional argument might, however, suggest that what Covid-19 has really focused attention on, more than anything else, is the need to take research leadership seriously.

This is a critical point. Vibrant research environments that prize, nurture and facilitate mobility do not emerge as if by magic. They demand leadership—not in an individualised, heroic sense, but collective leadership that recognises different leadership roles and the need to blend skills and talent.

Research leadership revolves around the provision of a clear intellectual vision, a spark and energy. It involves forging high-trust, low-cost relationships, on removing barriers, bending the rules and focusing on creating a culture and environment in which others can reach their full potential.

Perverse incentives

The UK has a significant number of world-class research leaders. What it lacks is an ambitious or strategic approach to research leadership that nurtures talent throughout the journey from post-doc to full professor. If anything, and as my recently published review for the Economic and Social Research Council clearly demonstrates, the current research landscape tends to discourage people from taking leadership roles.

Leading the development of a large, complex and multi-institutional funding bid is time-consuming, and the chances of success are often slim. Academics are already under pressure, and are increasingly reluctant to step forward.

There are very few sources of training, development or support; mentorship is mostly down to luck rather than design; the over-emphasis on post-docs and high-flying professors leaves mid-career staff out in the cold; and despite increasing evidence that transformative research depends on intellectual range, we have a system in which discipline-hopping and braided careers are almost impossible to sustain.

Even when academics are successful, the review found that funding for teaching or administrative relief seldom benefit those leading the project. Academics are increasingly encouraged to lead across borders and collaborate with other institutions, only to find that projects where they are not the named principal investigator do not really count for workload allocation or promotion purposes.

Despite a clear shift towards team science, our incentive systems remain highly individualised, and the Research Excellence Framework is widely perceived as suffocating ambition and innovation.

Reach for the stars

Post-Covid, maintaining the UK’s world-class science base demands a fresh approach to recognising and nurturing talent and skills that go well beyond traditional academic expectations. The naysayers and dream-stealers will declare that academe is reform-weary and that the world is about to end, but those who look up to the stars rather than down to the gutter will see a huge opportunity.

The aim should be building resilience while enabling transformational research in an inclusive manner that facilitates the mobility of people, ideas and talent at all career stages. The Academy of Medical Sciences’ Future Leaders in Innovation, Enterprise and Research scheme has shown ambition and agility. It could be built upon to dovetail with other major national projects, such as the Cabinet Office’s National Leadership Centre, to forge new opportunities in research.

Covid-19 has underlined the need for flexible and agile research systems and professional incentives that align with societal needs. Last year, before the virus had even been detected, UK Research and Innovation called for a paradigm shift in supporting careers. The need for this shift—and an understanding of why research leadership matters—is now even more urgent.

Matthew Flinders is founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, and vice-president of the Political Studies Association of the UK