Creating a thriving research environment

Universities must create the right culture for researchers to thrive, says Ann MacLarnon

Reputations are built on multiple factors in modern-day universities: the standing and quality of research output is part of a triumvirate alongside premium teaching and an exceptional student experience, all of which ultimately work together to create rounded, highly employable graduates. Successful research drives our staff and students and is the funnel through which academia influences government, the public and private sectors, and popular consciousness.

We all know it, but it’s worth repeating: Great research builds a stronger reputation, which in turn attracts the sharpest and most original-thinking staff who discover, analyse and create. This feeds into cutting-edge teaching and better educated students. It’s a hackneyed concept, but students genuinely learn better from people who are engaged with their subject areas. Universities which create the right working conditions for academics to carry out their research will benefit across the board.

Roehampton’s commitment to world-class research in all areas makes us stand out from a number of modern universities, and our academics really proved themselves in the Research Excellence Framework. We did not just submit a small number of ‘research stars’: two thirds of our staff, coming from every academic department, were submitted to 13 REF panels, and 66% of their work was judged world leading or internationally excellent. From my perspective, it was exceptionally pleasing to submit such a high percentage of our people.

Our REF results demonstrated Roehampton is the most research-intensive modern university in the UK, a position of which we are justifiably proud, and which we will seek to maintain and build on in future. I’ve been involved in many research audits, including multiple Research Assessment Exercises and each time, Roehampton has improved significantly. Seeing progression over time is incredibly gratifying, especially the latest step up from RAE 2008 to REF 2014, in which virtually all our subjects rose substantially in standing.

Research is clearly not just about a regular audit though, and we need to provide an ongoing supportive environment for our staff who engage day in day out with new and exciting work, with critical issues in their fields, challenging orthodoxy and working to improve society. We focus on improving our understanding of the world, and creating new knowledge which changes lives. For example Dr Lewis Halsey, from our Department of Life Sciences, is an expert in environmental physiology. Working with PhD student Astrid Willener he has challenged conventional understanding of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction in animals. The study successfully questioned the validity of a long-held assumption within the scientific community. Continually challenging our understanding is a crucial element of cutting-edge research.

Our Department of Dance was rated top in its panel in the REF, which placed it sixth in the country for outputs, across all 1,191 units. Among a number of leading academics, Professor Theresa Buckland specialises in the study of social and popular dance in Britain. She charts changes in styles and from the waltz popular in Victorian society, to the rise of the tango among the middle classes in the growing number of dance halls in the capital at the turn of the century. Her latest research explores popular dance forms as expressions of English cultural and national identities in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Studies such as these are integral to our understanding of the country’s social history.

Within our Department of Social Sciences, Dr Amanda Holt has played a key role in a new government-backed guide for family workers to deal with child-to-parent violence. She was part of a specially-convened Home Office panel which spent 18 months devising the guide which provides specific best practice examples for professionals who have a role in reporting or safeguarding families at risk.

Among our English and Creative Writing staff, Dr Shelley Trower is involved in an ongoing project entitled Memories of Fiction, which has set out to discover why reading groups have returned to popularity – taking reading from the private to the public domain. The project looks at how we share our memories of fiction and will create an archive of oral interviews with readers, complementing traditional archives focused on authors. By turning to readers themselves, the project will enable insights into questions such as how memories of books are associated with particular experiences and emotions.

Dr Trower and her colleagues are examining how reading groups have turned written text into group talk, turning back the clock from literacy to orality. Tackling such key activities in our lives leads to greater self awareness, and on a subject in which so many of us take great pleasure.

These pen portraits highlight how diverse and highly relevant research really thrives in a strong research environment and can have impact far beyond our own walls. The onus is on senior management in all universities to make sure that the conditions for such a culture exist, and continually to ask ‘what should we be doing?’ We are recruiting new staff with strong research profiles attracted by our agenda and the conditions that support it, from regular sabbaticals, to dedicated research facilitators in every department to assist with grant applications and engagement. Key to our success is that all our staff know research is highly valued and supported from the Vice-Chancellor downwards.

Roehampton will continue to invest significantly in research, in both our excellent facilities and in our people. Our intention is to focus on our strengths, whilst developing in new, related fields – hence the launch of a Law School within our Department of Social Sciences, which is already attracting excellent staff and students.

Amongst our research initiatives, we have just advertised 50 project areas for fully funded PhD scholarships, five in each of our 10 academic disciplines, for the strongest and most innovative doctoral students. Key to Roehampton’s success thus far has been the genuine partnership which exists between our students and staff, so the successful candidates will join highly active research teams to work on their projects from this autumn. By investing in research students now, we will help create the senior researchers of the future, at the same time as supporting current staff with the benefits of new team members with challenging ideas and novel contributions which, dare I say it, fresh new minds do bring.

Professor Ann MacLarnon is Deputy Provost for Research at the University of Roehampton.

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