unpicking the power dynamics between research managers and academics


Simon Baker: 00:07

Hello, this is Team Science, a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers, in partnership with Nature Index. I’m Simon Baker, chief editor at Nature Index, which tracks research articles in leading science journals.

In this series, we explore behind the scenes of academia, and speak to the people who make it all possible, but do not necessarily get the credits.

This series is sponsored by Western Sydney University. And at the end of this episode, we’ll hear about how it is helping to champion team science.

In episode three, we delve further into research management, and discover how it’s done differently around the world.

Simon Kerridge: 00:51

Yeah, hi. So, my name is Simon Kerridge. And I guess I would call myself a research manager and administrator, an RMA.

I’m currently a freelance consultant in a huge company of one. So that’s Kerridge Research Consulting, should you be interested.

Prior to that, I was director of research services at the University of Kent, and have had various other roles before that in research management. So I’m a veteran of 30 years.

ARMA is the Association of Research Managers and Administrators. So I joined in 1997 as a member, and I put myself forward to join the committee. It was the committee then rather than the board, as it wasn’t a formal association.

So that was in 2000. I served for 12 years on the committee, till 2012. Had a year off. And then went back as chair for for three years from 2013 to 2016.

The research culture survey done through through ARMA by Hilary Noone was a very interesting piece of work, and certainly a lot in there resonated with me.

So yes, the professional research managers and administrators are generally seen to be an invisible profession.

So we’re a bit like the oil in the cogs. If we’re not there, then things go wrong. And things don’t happen as well. But if we’re there doing a good job, it’s quite easy to, kind of, miss out. Certainly, if you’re, if you’re sort of higher up in, in the echelons.

Particular researchers will work with the research office, with research managers and administrators, or their local research management administrators working in the department, and really appreciate the work that they do on putting a proposal together. That’s probably the most common example, is working on a project proposal.

And very often, there’ll be hugely appreciative of that. You might even get a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates when the submission goes in. Or more likely, if it gets funded. But you know, sometimes both.

But for other people who do not directly work with the research managers, administrators, it’s kind of “Well, I’m not quite sure what what they do.”

Their perception is probably that the researcher puts the proposal together and submits it. What does the research manager, administrator do?

“Did they somehow add some value, I don’t see how they possibly could.”

And so for, for those research managers, administrators who are in institutions, perhaps where research is not the top thing, so maybe teaching-intensive institutions, or even a lot of, sort of, sort of mid-ranked institutions, they are probably not going to be seen or known by more than 20% of the academic staff.

And so the other 80% of the academic staff, who are the ones who were on all the committees, who are voting for things for pay rises, or whatever it might be. It’s going to be “Well, yeah, I don’t really know what they do. But I can see that they cost the university a lot of money, because you can see the budgets with a research office. And so, so where’s that added value?”

So, so I think there is a big sort of selling job that RMAs need to do in order to in order to show their worth.

Obviously, it’s a service profession, but we have to be careful not to be subservient. So there are certain academics who I’ve worked with, or who have worked with members of my team, who have been, shall we say, well, I mean, I guess I said, who have been outright bullying.

So “We have a deadline coming up,” which they have known about for weeks not bothered interfacing. A research office and then you demand that support. “Yeah, I need it signing off.”

The assumption being that people in research office aren’t doing anything else, or are at their beck and call.

Yes, it’s five to five. But it’s okay. Because I know that you work till eight o’clock because the deadline is coming up. So there have been not a few instances of that. And you can understand why, because the academics themselves, of course, are under a lot of pressure. Lots of funding, probably they couldn’t do it the previous week, because they were teaching or whatever it might be.

But there are certainly individuals for whom they are very driven, assume everyone else is very driven, and want that support and want it now.

But the majority are perfectly fine. They understand that we are we’re people, we have other roles, and they will give us as much notice as possible.

And yeah, okay, yes, sometimes, a late thing does come in. But there are different ways of dealing with it, rather than than shouting down the phone: “Have you looked at my proposal yet?”

So I guess the system provides a lot of pressure. And because we put a lot of emphasis, (we the sector) on research income, then anything that an academic can do to try and increase their research income by getting those extra proposals in on time is going to be something which they think is going to help them with their career.

So there is very much a huge power dynamic there. And that can be problematic. Research management and administration probably been around for over 100 years, but only really for about 65 years or so in actuality, in terms of association.

So in the US, yeah, it’s been around for a long time. I mean, I know of some second generation, research administrators. I wonder if there’s any third generation ones? Could be by now.

But yeah, so some people whose parent or parents were, and so they actually saw it as something that they would want to move into.

So, yes, I guess the difference in the US, and also Canada, is that it is now very much seen as a profession, as opposed to something which you would maybe fall into sideways from, from being a researcher, which is very common in the UK, Europe, Africa, in fact, everywhere.

For example, it’s much more common for a US research administrator to to have a Master’s rather than a PhD. Whereas it’s a lot higher sort of 30, 40 even 50% in some countries, of research managers, administrators having PhDs because they have previously been researchers.

Tadashi Sugihara: 07:57

I am Tadashi Sugihara, working at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology graduate university in Japan. I am the manager of the grants and research collaborations section, and they have served for about six years.

My dream was to live as a scientist. So I tried to become an independent researcher in brain science. But, in short, unfortunately, I was not good enough.

Finding a job in any company was very challenging, because my expertise was probably too specific and narrow. And while I was leading a joint project with a big company in Japan, I gradually learned that I am okay with writing reports and negotiations with a company.

These tasks some researchers do not like, or are not good at. Then the Japanese government started a research administration project and encouraged the universities in Japan to implement a research administration system.

I applied for a position at Kyoto University and I got the job. That’s the beginning of my new career in my life. I think there are many research administrators in the United States who do not have a PhD, but their support is very fantastic.

In Japan, the Japanese government started a project which encouraged the Japanese universities to implement this administration system. In that context, Japanese government considers that PhD holders will be the core of the people who can become research administrators, because that’s the beginning of the history of research administrators in Japan.

So, in general, if one has the PhD degree, the research community in Japan may welcome such people and listen to such people’s advice.

Allen Mukhwana 10:47

My name is Allen, I was a research manager at the infectious diseases institute of Macquarie University in Uganda for about seven years. And my job involves everything research.

So it involved the pre-award process, which is looking for funding, connecting with the funders, applying for the funding, all the way through to close-out of the research project.

And in between, during the post award, but for research implementation, I was involved in recruitment of staff for the project for the research project.

I was also involved in the ethical review of the research, or at least the process that led to the ethical review. I was involved in the budgeting, of course, and disbursement of funding, and setting up research platforms that we could explore.

So, at the moment, I work with the Science for Africa Foundation. We are based in Nairobi, I lead the Research Management Programme in Africa, called ReMPro Africa.

So what we what we are doing is really trying to address the systemic level challenges at institutions.

So we’re looking at the institutional leadership, we’re looking at sustainability of both the research management function, but also the research enterprise generally, at institutions,

We’re looking at creating standards that then help the research managers use that as a benchmark to improve the assess their organizations. And the third is to build capacities of those individuals that support research at all those institutions.

I did a bachelor of science at university, and then did also a bachelor of mass communication. So I really can’t say I was prepared for research management. I stumbled into it by mistake, because one of my bosses, at the time, you know, there was a gap and said, “We could reskill and upskill, this kind of a person to take up the position of research manager at the organization.”

Maybe what I should say is that there are no courses on the continent that really teach you how to be a research manager. You kind of stumble into it. And then the biggest builders of skill in in Africa is really the networks and the collaborations.

And so at infectious diseases I was very lucky to have several collaborations, like Johns Hopkins University in the US, that I went to, to kind of understand what do people do actually.

And maybe just to say the research manager in Africam in most of the African universities, is a generalist, for a lot for lack of a better word is a generalist so they do everything.

They must understand everything, they must understand the science, the ethics, the regulatory aspects, the financials, people management, close out, setup of systems.

It was a baptism by fire, but, but it was really good for me because it helped me grow. But it was quite a challenge for several people because when I left the institute it was hard to get one person with all the skillsets.

Tadashi Sugihara: 15:02

So, sometimes we have a hard time to, for example, to prepare the researchers applications, because they may not really listen to our advice.

This happens everywhere, and any internal personal relationship will start by knowing each other.

So as we deepen our conversations, then sometimes they realize that our comments is very reasonable.

So gradually, they will trust us to some extent,. Then this will, you know, make both of us happier, and then in the future, very good customers, for our office.

They often just come by, drop by our office, if they have some questions. So then we think they kindly understand the importance of our function.

Allen Mukhwana 16:23

Then, the academics feel that they know everything. They don’t understand why the research manager, this lowly research manager, has the audacity to stop their study, for instance.

And many of the academies, let me just say, many of the academics are actually professors or senior lecturers in there and, you know, accomplished in their fields.

And so they feel that research managers and administrators are adding extra layers of bureaucracy to their research.

But also feel that because you’re not a professor, you have no business telling the professor how to do their research, because they’ve been doing research way before you joined the profession.

So they don’t understand, they don’t understand how you then come to its to tell them that there are certain regulatory aspects, you must follow this.

There’s a certain way in the university or institution must apply for funding, and ensure the continuity of the institution beyond your grant, and also build the institution for the next generation of researchers.

So this has changed over time, but very slowly, and many institutions are still struggling, really to allocate resources for research management and understand that research management is actually a main component, not just a small component, but a main component of research at any institution.

And therefore it should be resourced with both human and financial resources, so that they are able to grow the portfolio of the institution because they are supporting the the researchers in those institutions.

I think eventually researchers are a beginning to appreciate the role of research management, very slowly, but there’s incremental change, because then they realize, for you to navigate all those security offices, to navigate the regulatory bodies to navigate the budgeting office and all that, you need a cadre of professionals to do that for you. And those are the research managers and administrators.

And so the appreciation is very slowly growing. More developed in some places than others. But yeah, at the start, that wasn’t always the case.

Tadashi Sugihara: 19:26

But I believe that there’s no special skills. But in general, the skill for business person is necessary.

Writing clearly, and negotiation skill, logical reasoning, presentation, and some analytical skill, and so on.

But the important is a customer-oriented mind. In our case, a researcher-oriented mind it. For this reason, research experience would be an good data asset.

Allen Mukhwana 20:10

We’ve partnered with ARMA UK to build a program called the international research management staff development program.

We’ve had our first cohort of participants, where we had research managers from the UK universities, partnered with research managers from different African universities to create international teams that then create innovations in research management.

But importantly, it was to understand the different cultural perspectives at the African universities versus the UK universities, and then build collaborations or networks for the research managers.

Because if you’re dealing with someone at an institution who we’ve dealt with previously, then it’s easy for you to reach out to them and say: “I have a problem. I have a challenge here. How do we overcome this challenge?” and make our you know, whether it’s the contracting or implementation of research? How do we make that move forward?

So that that was a very successful program. And I should emphasize that we are working with the university leadership through the different fora, vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors, because we recognize that if the leadership is not well informed, and does not appreciate the function of research management, then they will not create the pathways for growth for research managers.

And so that’s the work that I’m currently doing. And it’s very exciting, because I really pulled from my own experiences, her way back, and what I had to go through to grow through the profession.

And I mean, upskilling for myself, so that I can be both strategic and administrative at the same time, because that’s what research management is about.

It’s not just the mundane administrative aspects, it’s also the strategic aspects around advising where to invest, how to invest, creating a portfolio of competencies for the institution.

And actually, you know, broadcasting those to attract funding, but also to look at a range of funders, and create collaborations that are equitable for the institution and for the researcher.

Simon Kerridge: 22:55

And, of course, there are some people who kind of live between those two worlds, if you like, who have an academic or a research role, and also have a research management or research management administration role.

So when I was thinking about my, myself, when I was in the early 90s, I was a researcher on a European project, but I was also doing research management duties. And that gave me the skills to become a research manager.

That’s very common in institutions where research is new or growing, or in countries where research is new or growing, where researchers themselves often have to do research management duties. And then eventually, research management resource is built up.

But during that sort of interim phase, there are quite often people who will have those same roles. And so one day, or one hour, they’re a researcher. And the next hour they’re a research manager, not just on their own project, but helping or advising other people.

So it’s very much that sort of moving in that third space, as Celia Whitchurch calls it, between academia and management or academia and, and leadership.

So I guess the thing that we can learn from from America, is that sort of professionalization, if you like, there are these these large councils, the research administrators in the US are part of their larger research ecosystem.

So I think we’re getting there in the UK, and a little bit in Europe, in terms of the research managers and administrators being seen as a resource for, for funders, for government bodies, for policymakers for “Will this thing actually work? Is there a better way of doing it?”

Because more often than not, we’re the people who will actually be running it and using those systems and have experience of submitting hundreds of proposals, as opposed to your standard sort of a member of academic staff who’s probably going to submit two or three proposals a year.

Or even if it’s 10, it’s not going to be as many as over so to penetrate administrators, so it’s kind of getting people to recognize the experience and expertise that we have. So So there are different models from from different countries.

Tadashi Sugihara: 25:22

I think there are many jobs here in Japan and in the world. But sometimes I think there are not many jobs in which we can really a very kind messages from customers.

And in our case, the customers are mostly researchers. And so, I think, this research administration job, it’s a very unique and a very precious job, which makes us very happy.

Simon Baker: 26:15

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Team Science Podcast. I’m Simon Baker, chief editor at Nature Index.

The producer was Dom Byrne. Next up, we’ll hear how Western Sydney University, the sponsor of this series, is helping to champion team science.

Caris Bizzaca 26:39:

I’m Caris Bizzaca and welcome to this podcast series from Western Sydney University. Over this six-episode series I’ll be introducing you to some incredible research taking place — from a million-dollar fungi project that’s helping combat climate change, to surveys into maternity care treatment, to creating electric vehicles for women in rural African communities, and more. These projects are just a handful of those that entered the 2022 and 2023 Research Impact Competition, run by Western Sydney University in Australia.

There’s also something else they have in common: they each speak to a Sustainable Development Goal or SDG — a list of 17 goals created by the United Nations, which tackle global issues including poverty, hunger, climate change, gender inequality and access to education.

So how do we identify problems and then the path forward? Well, through research. And this research is happening at universities across the globe, who are graded in the annual Times Higher Education Impact rankings on their commitment to the SDGs. This is significant because out of 1,700 universities in the world, Western Sydney University ranked number one overall for the past two years. And if we drill down into the SDGs it excelled in, it came first for the goals Gender Equality, Partnership for the Goals, and Responsible Consumption and Production. For more information about Sustainable Development Goals you can visit sdgs.un.org and keep listening, as the researchers across this series will talk to how their projects contribute to positive change.

Before we dive in, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the custodians of the lands where Western Sydney University campuses are located, and pay respect to the peoples of the Dharug, Tharawal, Eora and Wiradjuri nations. I pay my respect to elders past and present. Always was, always will be.

Now, let’s hear from some of the researchers from Western Sydney University’s Research Impact Competition.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 28:46

I am a former high school science teacher myself and of course I’m, you know, really passionate about particularly getting more girls into STEM fields where they’re underrepresented.

Caris Bizzaca 28:56

That’s Dr Erin Mackenzie, who works at Western Sydney University’s School of Education as a senior lecturer in educational psychology and STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Dr Mackenzie took part in the 2022 Research Impact Competition for her project, which investigates attitudes towards science study for girls and boys in their early to middle years of high school — as well as their thoughts on continuing with science into Year 11 and 12.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 29:24

What we’re trying to do is see if there are particular attitudes that we might be able to support teachers to intervene in, to then increase participation in science in the senior years of high school. The thinking behind it is that if we can support girls and boys to have more positive attitudes towards science, then we’re more likely to get more kids engaged in Year 11 and 12. And then, hopefully, that will have flow-on effects into tertiary study and careers in STEM more broadly.

Caris Bizzaca 29:57

The underrepresentation of women in STEM is often referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 30:03

The leaky pipeline is a metaphor. It’s not a perfect one, but it’s a metaphor that just recognises that there are multiple points along a woman’s life in which she might start to disengage and opt out of science or STEM more broadly. And so we’re focusing on high school as being just one of those places along the leaky pipeline where we lose students, because it’s actually really difficult if a student has decided that they’re not going to study any science or mathematics. If they’ve made that decision in high school, it becomes really difficult for them to then opt back in when they move into tertiary study. And then obviously that has flow-on effects in terms of the sorts of careers that they can pursue. And we know that despite really extensive research attention and focus from government policy and from industry, we still know that women are really quite severely underrepresented in many of the STEM fields.

Caris Bizzaca 31:05

For context, in Australia, science is mandatory for students in New South Wales until Year 10, and a previous study into participation in science subjects in Year 11 showed that while there was an overrepresentation of girls studying biology, there was an underrepresentation in chemistry and a significant underrepresentation in physics. Data from the New South Wales Education Standards Authority showed that in 2022, across the state just 4.9% of girls in Year 12 that were awarded a Higher School Certificate chose to study physics.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 05:04

So I suppose for us it’s about trying to fix a gap in the pipeline that’s a fairly early one, in the early years of high school.

Caris Bizzaca 31:48

That starts with research — which Dr Mackenzie has been leading for the past three years.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 31:54

We ’ve worked with just under a thousand students across about seven different schools, and the research has been predominatly survey based. So the students complete a survey about their attitudes, but they also include what they’re planning to do for their career, and also which subjects they’re planning to take in Year 11 and Year 12. And so some of the really interesting findings for us have been that the kids who have higher levels of anxiety around learning maths are less likely to want to continue studying subjects like chemistry and physics, that are quite mathematically oriented as well. So that’s really important in terms of opening up conversations about how attitudes in, say, mathematics are then having a flow-on effect into some of the sciences. And then another really key finding has also been that the most important factor that seems to predict whether kids are intending to continue studying any of the sciences has been whether they think that science is relevant either to their current lives or to their future career.

Caris Bizzaca 33:07

Dr Mackenzie has been working with teachers to think about ways of making the link between science study and its use outside the classroom much clearer — which does create its own hurdles.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 33:18

It’s always challenging for schools to fit anything additional into their days, so we’re very conscious of asking schools to give us access to their school day and to their students. But I think we’re trying to give teachers a really clear way forward — this is what the data from your students is saying, so then what does that mean in terms of really practical implications for teachers to then make small changes to their practice to try and support kids to stay in science as they move through high school.

Caris Bizzaca 33:50

And recent years have indicated just how important that understanding of science is.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 33:55

Coming out of COVID, we have really been shown how important it is that kids have a high level of scientific literacy, so that they are able to critically analyse the information that’s in front of them, so that they understand basic science and can engage with research in terms of making health decisions for their future. Kids are being constantly bombarded with misinformation online through social media. And so I think it’s, arguably, we’re at a really important time where kids — girls and boys — really, really need to stay engaged in science so that they can identify that misinformation and, and make really educated decisions for their future.

Caris Bizzaca 34:40

Dr Mackenzie’s research also ties in with the SDGs.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 34:45

This work definitely aligns with quality education as a sustainable development goal, but it also underpins work in terms of addressing gender equality.

Caris Bizzaca 34:54

Going forward, Dr Mackenzie wants to build upon their findings around the link between maths anxiety and its potential impact on chemistry and physics enrolments.

Dr Erin Mackenzie 35:05

So, our future work I think will focus on that interplay between attitudes in maths and science. So while we’ve looked at it from a negative point of view around maths anxiety indicating that that might lead students to opt out of some sciences. The flip side, I suppose, is that science provides a really nice way of showing kids how maths can be applied in their everyday life. We do teach them in a fairly siloed way in high school, so there’s potentially ways that we can get maths and science teachers working together to show kids where the links are between the two subjects, because that’s how they operate in the real world. So that’s one of our sort of key directions going forward, is to expand the study I suppose out from focusing just on science, but to integrate attitudes towards maths as well.

Caris Bizzaca 36:03

That was Dr Erin Mackenzie, one of the participants in the 2022 Research Impact Competition at Western Sydney University. Join us for the next episode to find out more about the research being undertaken in Australia and its real-world impact, both now and into the future.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here