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Research managers are ready to build a better culture


Arma 2021: conference reflects profession’s unique view of equity and inclusion, says Jennifer Stergiou

Conversations about research culture and the need for change are everywhere at the moment, from the government’s People and Culture Strategy to charges of bias in UK Research and Innovation’s funding-allocation processes, to the Wellcome Trust’s restructuring and rebranding of a new culture, equity, diversity and inclusion team.

Research managers and administrators (RMAs) have always been at the sharp end of such issues. Working with large numbers of researchers across an organisation puts us at the heart of the system, and means we are often the first to see or experience both the systemic nature of cultural issues and their impact on individuals and teams.

We manage the research-ethics process, and provide a sympathetic ear and advice on alternative funding routes for a researcher whose projects are fantastic but not funded, or whose third fixed-term contract in a row is approaching its end. We advise on publication plans and open research; know the ins and outs of research evaluation better than anyone; and facilitate opportunities for collaboration. All of this shapes, and is shaped by, research culture. 

The culture also has a direct effect on RMAs’ professional lives through, for example, issues of parity of esteem, respect and inclusion. The 2020 Research Culture Survey by the Association of Research Managers and Administrators found an institutionalised disparity between academic and professional support jobs, and 44 per cent of respondents had directly experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination. 

These findings were an important factor in deciding the theme for this year’s Arma conference (5-7 October): Responsible Culture in a Post-Covid World—Inclusion and Change. In retrospect, the idea that we would now be living in a ‘post-Covid’ world was a little ambitious—this will be Arma’s first virtual conference. But there is no question that research culture and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are big issues that RMAs want to talk about and use their influence for positive change.

Collective drive

Despite the multitude of ways in which RMAs experience and interact with research culture, many still question whether the concept applies to them, whether they have any power to change things, and whether they should get involved. The conference seeks to answer those questions with a resounding “yes”, by bringing the community together to discuss how collective effort can drive systemic change.

Every interaction an RMA has contributes to research culture, whether that’s with an academic, a student, a professional colleague, a policymaker or a member of the public, within their own organisation, with a collaborator or with a funder. If we focus on kindness, collaboration and openness in those interactions, we can make a positive contribution every day. Yes, we have a job to do, deadlines to meet and decisions to make, but toxic cultures don’t help any of those things. 

In the past, many RMAs felt this case-by-case basis was the only way they could shape research culture. It’s exciting to see that changing, with the conversation, ambition and effort shifting to a strategic level. Organisational leadership, values, policies, reward and recognition, to name a few, have a huge influence on culture, and RMAs at different levels shape and influence these. 

Some elements of research culture go beyond our own organisations. Persistent, systemic issues and inequalities in the sector and wider society can feel just too big to tackle. Some RMAs have questioned whether it is their place to try to do so. 

This is why Arma has placed equity, diversity and inclusion at the heart of its strategy for 2021-24. We want to support individuals to feel empowered to act, make the voices of RMAs heard in larger forums, and advocate and influence together as a 3,000-strong membership body. 

Arma will bring this strategy to life by, for example, providing training in EDI, creating an inclusive and accessible environment for our members, working with the coalition Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health, and through our responses to consultations on matters of research culture, EDI and the expertise of RMAs.

The Arma 2021 conference is about providing a space for research managers to learn from one another and our amazing keynote speakers, to build professional and support networks, and to feel empowered to change their organisations, and research and innovation more broadly. Whether that’s through changing someone’s day, shaping institutional policy, or advocating for positive ideas across sector groupings or government, it’s time for inclusion and change. 

Jennifer Stergiou is director of research and innovation services at Northumbria University, and chair of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators. She is speaking at the ARMA conference on 5 October

Research Professional News is the official media partner for Arma 2021. Read more coverage here

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version also appeared in Research Europe