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‘More work needed to bridge research office divide’


RPN Live: Experts discuss the gap between what researchers expect and what can be provided

A concerningly large gap between what university research offices do and what researchers expect of them needs to be bridged, speakers at a Research Professional News Live webinar have advised.

The event delved into the results of the Research Offices of the Future report published this week by Research Professional News, which is an editorially independent part of Clarivate.

The report set 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.

A “big concern” to emerge, report author Chris Parr said in the webinar, was a major gap in expectations between the two groups.

The biggest challenge research officers said they faced in helping researchers win funding was a lack of effective engagement between their offices and researchers, he told the 29 November webinar.

This lack of engagement was underscored by other survey findings in which the views of researchers and research officers diverged. For example, the proportion of researchers expecting help demonstrating the impact of their research was substantially smaller than the proportion of research officers expecting to provide it.

Silke Blohm, director of the 4Sciences Group research consultancy and a former research manager, said that probably the most surprising finding from the surveys for her was the “huge discrepancy that we still have between researchers and research officers, and how they engage and how they see each other’s roles”.

Working together?

Researchers mainly see research officers as being there to help them gain funding, Blohm said, whereas there has been “a huge increase in the complexity of managing research” over the past 25 years. This means research officers are now working on issues such as research integrity and data management, as well as just winning money.

The discrepancy is “a big challenge” for universities but also “a big opportunity” to improve how they function, she suggested. Universities should build teams of researchers, research officers, technicians and other staff to get them working better together, she stressed.

“We need to move away from saying, ‘We have our academics here and we as research officers are part of administration,’” she suggested. “It’s really crucial to form teams and work together.”

Simon Kerridge, another research officer turned consultant, agreed.

“What you really need is to work in collaboration. It all comes back to that research culture side of things, the valuing everyone’s contribution,” he told the RPN Live event.

Communication is key

Bridging the gap between researchers and research offices, Kerridge said “really is a question of communication”.

Research officers tend to take their cue from institution leaders and their strategies, whereas researchers remain focused mainly on doing their projects and publishing papers.

“In a lot of ways, the research office sits between the researcher and the institution, as a translator [or] as a buffer,” said Kerridge.

He suggests that having “getting to know each other” conversations over coffee, starting with a few key academics, is the way to bridge the divide and build trust.

Blohm agreed that an incremental approach is needed: “You meet one [researcher and help them] and that will snowball” to others.

Resource shortfalls

One reason why many research officers cannot communicate one-on-one with more researchers appears to be a lack of resources in their teams.

Research officers surveyed said a lack of budget and other resources was the main challenge facing their offices in general.

It remains tricky to attract research officers to the profession and to keep them in it, Kerridge and Blohm agreed. One continuing problem is a lack of recognition and knowledge about research management careers, an issue much discussed in the profession in recent years.

The answer to staffing shortfalls, Blohm suggested, is not “so much about pay: it’s most of all about being acknowledged and seen for what one has contributed, and seen as an equal member of a large project. That’s again something we all still have to work on.”