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What makes research support excellent?

Earma 2021: research managers and administrators lack well-established markers of success, says Olaf Svenningsen

The idea that excellent research requires excellent support may seem a no-brainer. It’s a ringing phrase to put in strategies and mission statements, as, indeed, organisations including the US National Science Foundation and the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators have done. 

But what makes research support excellent? And can it only excel in the service of excellent research—or can support staff do excellent work for not-yet-excellent researchers? 

Research managers and administrators (RMAs) work on almost every part of the research cycle, from planning through pre-award, to post-award and project close-out. They are often deeply involved, becoming (not always recognised) partners in projects.

But while researchers have well-established markers of success—bibliometric indicators, funding records, honours, supervised graduate students and so on—RMAs do not. This lack of agreed standards for recognition and assessment complicates institutions’ efforts to set up or restructure research support, and is reflected in the confusing array of models for RMAs seen across Europe. 

The challenges of evaluating research support were well illustrated by a conference held in Reykjavik in 2016, organised by the Nordic Network for University Administrators and titled ‘How to measure the value and quality of research and innovation service’. The conference heard good ideas and experiences, but failed to reach a definitive conclusion. 

But it did conclude that customer satisfaction is crucial. These customers are researchers, but also management. Striking the right balance between the two is not easy, and depends on institutional structures. 

In some research organi-sations, RMAs work closely with researchers. In others they are closer to management, in the shape of department heads, deans and vice-chancellors. The pros and cons of centralised and decentralised models of research support is a never-ending topic of discussion.

Another difficulty with gauging the value of research support is that it depends on research and researchers. This, in turn, depends on a great number of factors: researchers’ experience; the scale and complexity of the project; the expected outputs; the rules governing the funding programme, and so on. 

In highly structured systems, where a large number of projects are funded from relatively few sources, such as the European Commission or the US National Institutes of Health, some support services can be standardised. This makes it easier to quantitatively measure research support, particularly for standard services such as financial reporting or legal services. 

But what’s easy to measure may not always provide the highest value. And unexpected things happen even in the most standardised systems. I have yet to meet an RMA who can’t tell stories of how things did not go as planned, in good and bad ways.

Common threads

I have worked in research organisations in Denmark, Sweden and the United States. Their approaches differed hugely, but some traits of excellent research support stand out. 

What makes research support excellent, I would argue, is not a direct association with excellent research, but rather the ability to help make it so. 

Excellent support satisfies both researchers and management. Support that is too centralised or too decentralised will be hampered in its scope. I have experience of both extremes, and both have big disadvantages.

Perhaps surprisingly, my impression is that large, established research universities often have under-performing and under-resourced research support. I think this is partly because it’s harder to distinguish the contribution of RMAs from the effects of the reputation and networks of superstar scientists. 

It’s also harder to make a difference to a research group that is already at the top. Being associated with eminent researchers may actually be professionally risky to RMAs.

Excellent research support is an ecosystem, not a unit, with interdependent and collaborating components and niches. This insight is crucial for understanding research support. 

A doctorate is not essential for RMAs, but experience in research is an asset. It is possible, and common, to enter the profession from outside academia and be successful, but the learning curve will be steep, and an ounce of humility is a survival skill. 

For example, my background as a geologist, studying a mixture of slow tectonic processes and catastrophic earthquakes and eruptions, turned out to be ideal preparation for my career as an RMA.

So does excellent research support require excellent research? The short answer is no. 

A presentation on this work is taking place at the Earma 2021 conference this month. Research Professional News is Earma’s media partner.

Olaf Svenningsen is head of the Research Secretariat in Mental Health Services for the Region of Southern Denmark

This article also appeared in Research Europe