Navigating the evolving role of research managers: Insights from INORMS Council members

By: Saskia Hoving, Wed Apr 3 2024
Saskia H

Author: Saskia Hoving

In today’s complex research landscape, research management is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. This profession has been establishing itself and is gaining recognition for its important role in impactful research. But the process is lengthy, and challenges remain. We spoke with members of the INORMS Council, the International Network of Research Management Societies, to explore the place of research managers in academia and beyond, their responsibilities and recognition, and developments and initiatives relating to this important profession.

Five passionate and leading research managers, who hold various positions within the vibrant and expanding international community of research managers, joined us to discuss their profession, its importance, and its challenges:

  • Linsey Dickson, Director of Research Services at the University of Stirling, UK. Previously Chair of the INORMS Working Group, and Member of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA)
  • Patrick Reurink, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Chair of the Norwegian Association for Research managers and administrators (NARMA)
  • Dipti Pandya, Head of Pre-Award Funding, UCD Research at University College Dublin, Ireland (UCD), and Chair of the European Association of Research managers and administrators (EARMA)
  • Annemarie Vastenhouw-van der Linden, Senior Advisor and Program Manager for large scale grants at the University Medical Center of Utrecht, the Netherlands, and Chair of the Association for Research Managers and Administrators in the Netherlands (ARMA-NL)
  • Dembo Kanteh, Head of Partnerships at MRC Unit The Gambia at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, based in the Gambia, West Africa, and President of the West Africa Research and Innovation Management Association (WARIMA) 

Research management: Vital for impactful research

International collaborations are becoming the cornerstone of doing impactful research. Collaborations are considered to drive innovation through resource sharing and widening perspectives, as well as increase citations and reputation. But collaborations also add complexity, and professional research management is needed to mitigate this complexity and relieve researchers from administrative and management responsibilities.

In the past, researchers themselves could have covered the different aspects of what research managers do, explains Annemarie Vastenhouw-van der Linden. “But that’s not possible anymore”, she continues, and identifies a need for experts in different aspects of the management of research to take over, “so that the researcher or innovator can focus on what they are good at”.

In this evolving research landscape, research managers are expected to support global research collaboration, manage equitable partnerships, implement emerging technology developments, and support a healthy research environment. But there is still substantial divergence in the understandings and expectations of research managers’ roles and responsibilities.

What do research managers do?

“There is a journey that research managers and their associations are on in terms of what a research manager actually does, what is the profession? Every association and also the individual members are on that journey, and at differing points on that journey”, says Linsey Dickson.

A broad definition is that research managers are tasked with the leadership, management or support of research and innovation activities. In practice, what this means can vary greatly, and might depend on the size of the research office or its scope of specialisation, or its geographical location and how local funding schemes  finance such roles. There is also substantial variation in the background and expertise of research managers. Dickson sees “a whole range and a lot of variation across the community in terms of what is considered as part of research management”.

The responsibilities of research managers generally include helping scientists apply for grants, ensuring compliance with institutional and other policies, supporting research strategy and policy, and coordinating research with international collaborators. Research managers keep up to date on constantly shifting regulations and protocols, and ensure compliance with relevant rules. There are also discussions and explorations of the scope and meaning of this role within regional and global associations of the profession, as well as vis-à-vis the research funding organisations and bodies. Through their funding policies they too influence the role and responsibilities of research managers in practice, and can also create visibility and recognition for this profession. Dembo Kanteh explains that where such roles are less well established, definitions are initially worked out within individual institutions, “to agree with us as to what the specific role and function of a research manager should be within the system”.

Why recognition matters for research managers

The differences and variation in definitions of research managers’ tasks, responsibilities, and expertise create a challenge in terms of recognition, awareness and reward. There has certainly been a substantial improvement in recognising the contribution of research managers in the systems and research projects they are part of. But while we can speak of a “recognition issue”, research management is certainly no longer seen as simply a technicality in the processes and procedures for which their involvement is required.

Patrick Reurink is indeed positive about the current level of recognition awarded to research managers: “Now we are at a place in the journey where I feel at least that the profession is very acknowledged. It’s a natural part of the research environment”. Dipti Pandya concurs: “I think there’s a change coming and some of that is because we’re working together as more of a community”.

Pandya also sees importance in the involvement of research managers in the broader research community, becoming a meaningful voice and gaining recognition in the general circles of research and innovation, as well as in policy organisations. Indeed, Dickson mentions growing recognition of research managers from outside the research community, from funders and governments: “There is a lot of consultation now with research managers, with the associations, whether that’s to support dissemination or just to exchange information. There’s real acknowledgement of the role of research managers”.

While there is a lot of positivity about the growing recognition of research managers and the significance of their contribution and expertise, some critical challenges remain. Pandya confirms that research managers are being discussed and seen as key stakeholders or equal partners, but she reminds that “at the back of it, a lot of our members still have short term contracts, they have no career progression, they have no professional development framework. They have no recognition in that way”.

The importance of research management associations

The international research management and administration community is abuzz with many organisations, networks, and initiatives that bring research managers together. These entities are practically and continuously defining the profession of research managers, thus contributing to the recognition of this important role in today’s research landscape.

Indeed, a concluding remark in Springer Nature’s whitepaper ‘Administrating change: Global perspectives on research management’ found professional associations vital to developing and sharing good practices, connecting like-minded colleagues, and also introducing the wider research ecosystem to research managers and establishing recognition to the important role they play.

The communication, connection, and collaboration between these associations on a global level guide and enable actions on regional or local levels. Kanteh sees, for example, how funding regional associations to participate in international research management conferences can have an impact also beyond the opportunity to network and communicate: “It gives a view to leadership to see a broad spectrum of the issues that are discussed at the international level, so that when they go back to their own regions, they could be able to push those walls through into the region”.

Within the INORMS Working Group, shares Dickson, ongoing consideration is given to how INORMS can support the global community of research managers through a range of projects. Initiatives to ensure the sustainability of research management associations and to support their individual members abound, such as capacity building. “There’s a lot of activity”, says Dickson, “because we’re all quite passionate about the profession”.

  • One such initiative is Research Administration as a Profession (RAAAP), an INORMS Taskforce that collects and analyses longitudinal data about the profession. Another community collaborative initiative is BESTPRAC, a network that serves as a platform for exchanging experiences, sharing and developing best practices, and encouraging knowledge transfer.
  • Similarly, the EU funded RM Roadmap and CARDEA initiatives contribute to the improvement of the professional recognition. The RM Roadmap is a research management excellence community, that aims to create a roadmap for the future of the research management, within a strategic, cross-border partnership between research managers in industry, Research Funding Organisations, higher-education, and research institutions. CARDEA works to enable the professionalisation of research management as a valued career choice.

The role of research managers is an important part of the research landscape and is vital for impactful research and innovation that tackles the global challenges of our time. To support the establishment and development of this profession, recognition of its importance is key. The processes of defining responsibilities and attaining recognition evolve globally, regionally, and nationally, and also within institutions themselves. It is an exciting and challenging time for research managers, but their invaluable contribution to research and innovation is clear and undisputed.

For more in depth insights download the white paper “Administrating change: Global perspectives on research management” and “A changing landscape in collaboration: Insights into trends in research collaboration, and how institutions are adapting”.

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Saskia H

Author: Saskia Hoving

In the Dordrecht office, Marketing Manager Saskia Hoving produces The Link Newsletter for research communities. Focusing on the evolving role of libraries regarding SDGs, Open Science, and researcher support, she explores academia's intersection with societal progress. With a lifelong passion for sports and recent exploration into "Women’s inclusion in today’s science", Saskia brings dynamic insights to her work.