The changing role of research managers

Julia Warner from University of East Anglia looks at the shifting role of research managers over the past year

When first asked to consider how my role as research manager has changed over the past year, my thoughts immediately went back to late 2013 when all research managers across the UK were consumed with the same mammoth task – preparing, finalising and submitting to HEFCE’s Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The culmination of years of preparation for REF submissions felt like it should have been cause for rest and reflection before remembering what the day job entailed, but a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, the HEFCE cycle of research assessment never stops. The almost immediate planning of a prospective timetable for the next REF brought with it a realisation that research managers couldn’t rest for long.

So we moved from collating, checking and maximising the quality of our 2014 submissions to setting University researchers off on the right tracks for the next (as yet unconfirmed) assessment exercise. This has involved a direction shift from looking at what has been done, to what can and should we do over the next five to six years? Aside from supporting research leaders with the role of directing and managing individual and group research activity, in spring 2014 we were handed a new challenge with the announcement of HEFCE’s policy for Open Access in the post 2014 REF. This has prompted the need for a major culture shift across many academic disciplines and added heightened importance for research managers to the development of effective institutional policies and repositories to facilitate Open Access compliance ahead of HEFCE’s 2016 implementation date.

Coinciding with the end of the 2014 REF cycle was the start of the long awaited Horizon 2020 funding scheme from Brussels, the first calls for which came out in December 2013. The complexity of administering European Commission funding for research cannot be underestimated and there was significant scepticism around the claims that Horizon 2020 would make administration easier. This still remains to be seen, but the appetite for European funding gets stronger as traditional sources of UK grant funding become more competitive. So much of the year has been spent ploughing through the EC Participant Portal and familiarising ourselves with new requirements and working out implications in time for the first new grants.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the continued need for increased collaboration in research and the requirement to generate real world relevance (‘impact’) from our research. In particular, this has driven the increased need for relationship building with organisations outside of academia – particularly commercial and public sector organisations – who, together with world-class researchers, promise to address the key economic and societal challenges of the modern world. For research managers this more outward facing role has not just brought the challenge of how to contract, record and evidence all this activity but also engagement with more commercially facing colleagues. This can only be a good thing and, within my role, this has led to much closer involvement with the University’s student careers and enterprise service, colleagues in business development roles, and the development of a new regional enterprise centre on campus.

So what changes will come in the years ahead? We know that REF results will have an effect on the research landscape, and that emerging technology is bound to have an effect on day-to-day activities. The profile of information management and transparency continues to grow, and the increased need to strategise and prioritise research against a backdrop of limited resource and demands to make a difference, all offer continued challenges for both university researchers and the research managers who facilitate and support these activities.

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About the author
Julia Warner has been a Research & Enterprise Manager at the University of East Anglia (UEA) for three years. Her role involves supporting strategic development of research and managing the teams and processes which support externally funded research activities at the University. Julia also acts as the University’s HEFCE liaison person for the Research Excellence Framework and has been an ARMA member since 2010.

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